Last week the buzz around some FaceBook groups was all about recent advances in the technology of artificial wombs. With reservations, we think that this could be a good thing. It has the potential to address certain concerns that come up when discussing a “pro-life economic agenda” geared toward removing all economic pressure or justification for abortion.
First, technology qua technology is morally neutral. It all depends on what you do with it. We can see no moral objection to an artificial womb to save the life of an infant who would otherwise die. It is, as far as we can see, no different from an artificial heart or lung. It would, in our opinion, be morally permitted under the principle of double effect.
(The principle of double effect is an ethical doctrine that originates in Thomas Aquinas’s analysis of a killing in self-defense in the Summa Theologica. We don’t need to get into self-defense for our purposes here; we can content ourselves with summarizing the principle.
(The principle of double effect applies when carrying out an act that is ordinarily either good or morally indifferent, but which has unintended bad “side effects.” For example, surgery causes pain and endangers the patient’s life, but the intent, to repair or remove a diseased or injured organ, is good; surgery considered by itself is morally neutral.
(For an act to be morally licit [i.e., “allowed”] under the principle of double effect, four conditions must be met:
(1. The act must either be good or morally indifferent, i.e., the act cannot be inherently or objectively evil in and of itself.
(2. The bad side effect must not be the means by which the good effect is achieved [i.e., it must be an actual side effect].
(3. The good effect must be what is intended. The bad side effect must be unintended. [This isn’t exactly the same as #2.]
(4. The good effect must be at least as significant or important as the bad effect; i.e., the good must either equal or surpass the bad.
(There is a fifth condition in social justice: we cannot allow the cause(s) that forced such a choice on us to remain. We have the duty to organize in social justice to restructure the institutions of the social order that were causing, or allowing others to cause, the situation that forced us to choose something bad.)
Once we get into reasons other than saving a life, things get a little more gray. Viable embryos that would otherwise be destroyed? This is a somewhat tougher call, but we would go with prudence and say, Bring them to term in an artificial womb. Should they have been conceived? In the opinion of some people, no — but they were conceived, they are, in terms of “being,” human, and to kill them would, given the presumption of humanity, therefore be objectively evil.
Cases of conception due to rape or incest, or where the mother's life is in danger, bring up a similar case. This is even grayer (or blacker, if you prefer). The first two are the hardest call. If the alternative were abortion without recourse, our opinion would be that an artificial womb might be permitted as an expedient, although with certain reservations.
The last, the case of a mother’s life being in danger, is easier. Assuming that the mother’s life really is in danger, there is a clear medical justification for bringing the infant to term outside the mother's womb.
Other reasons, e.g., career, convenience, laziness, or anything else, would, probably, fall into the area of things that are considered immoral, but which human law probably would allow for the sake of expedience. It is not objectively evil for an infant to gestate outside the mother’s womb, but what constitutes justification to do so would be one heck of a judgment call that many people are probably not prepared to make objectively. This would in all likelihood last at least until the social order can be restructured and more people are encouraged by the institutional environment to act in conformity with their own nature, which includes having children naturally instead of growing them in a bottle.