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A Brave New Pod? The EctoLife Fantasy

ultrasound image

If you’re wondering what an entire facility of artificial wombs may look like, then look no further. On December 9, 2022, Hashem Al-Ghaili released his concept, “EctoLife,” via YouTube. The video offers a glimpse into the “world’s first artificial womb facility,” or rather what looks like a sci-fi dystopia movie – rows of fetuses in pods being “produced” in a factory-like environment. While only a idea for now, what is essentially on offer is the ability for parents to produce customized children that bypasses the process of pregnancy altogether.

Renewable energy powers the fantasy facility’s 75 labs, all equipped with up to 400 growth pods designed to provide a similar environment to inside a mother’s womb. Designed to “grow” 30,000 babies a year, EctoLife promises non-gestational pregnancy, control of the gestational environment, and the chance for parents to witness their baby’s growth and development using an app on their phone and via a VR headset. The hope, the narrator in the video claims, is that such an apparatus could be used to combat infertility by allowing parents to have biologically related offspring without experiencing pregnancy or conception. Additionally, parents could “customize” their embryo and choose their child’s level of intelligence, height, hair and eye color, skin tone, and physical strength.

Unsurprisingly, this video has attracted much attention and currently has 2.1 million views on YouTube. Described in the comments section as “insanely scary” and “truly alarming,” some have likened the idea to a modern-day Matrix. USA Today has refuted false claims that such a facility exists, and Dr. Guid Oei, a gynecologist and professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, has confirmed that the technology in the video is not currently possible.

Although EctoLife is pure fantasy, it does provide a rather interesting thought experiment for exploring our moral intuitions concerning the creation of future children.

Concerns over “designer babies” are not new; similar fears circulated when in vitro fertilization (IVF) was first developed. However, the possibility of child customization – using a “genetic menu” that offers the choice of over 300 genes – goes much further than reproductive technology like IVF, which has a more limited capability of recognizing and removing genetic abnormalities in an embryo. Today, this is done using a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD is not currently regulated in the United States, and whilst it is used to screen for genetic diseases, it’s also commonly offered for sex selection. One study found that in the United States, 72.7% of fertility clinics offer sex selection and 83.5% of those clinics offer sex selection for couples without infertility problems. Meanwhile, the development of CRISPR-Cas9 is the most advanced science has become in gene editing and likely the closest we will get to “customizing” genes. This gene-editing technology can remove, add, or alter precise sections of our DNA sequence. However, there are some that argue that the high risk of collateral damage makes CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing ultimately unethical.

The EctoLife video promises parents the power to design “the most viable and genetically superior embryo” – labeling undesirable qualities and traits as genetic defects to be removed and placing negative connotations on (perceived) disabilities. But surely which attributes represent the “best qualities” in society is a subjective question; qualities that one individual may find desirable, another may not. Who can really say?

There have been examples of parents who have selected for certain qualities that some individuals may choose to select against. For example, a deaf couple who deliberately chose to have a deaf child did so because they did not consider their deafness a disability. Instead, they saw it as a cultural identity – a quality that enabled (and structured) communication with others within the deaf community. In an interview with The Washington Post, the parents asserted that they would make better parents to a deaf child. Many, however, criticized the parents for the “harm” that were believed to have intentionally foisted on that child. Others were not convinced. For instance, Julian Savulescu, in “Deaf Lesbians, Designer Disability, and the Future of Medicine,” insisted that a child “is harmed by being selected to exist only if his or her life is so bad it is not worth living. Deafness is not that bad.” Instead, Savulescu argued that parents should have the freedom to choose the “best” child for them, and not only that, he argued that all parents have a moral responsibility to do so.

So, should we have the freedom to extend our reproductive choices so far as to “fully customize” our children as EctoLife advertises? Do we have a moral obligation not only to prevent “suffering” in future children but also to “enhance” them?

The proposed ability to choose specific characteristics in EctoLife’s “elite package” pose a variety of issues. The liberalization of these choices may risk the creation of “designer babies,” which are unlikely to come without a hefty price tag. There is already a lack of insurance coverage for IVF in the United States, and it seems unlikely that insurance companies would pay for parents to “embryo shop” in this capacity. It is projected that the average cost of a single IVF cycle in 2023 can range from $15,000 to $30,000. It is therefore likely that if the EctoLife fantasy did exist, the projected costs for parents would be far higher. This may mean that the “elite” have a monopoly over the technology, as well as an outsized influence over which qualities make a child the “best.” Sure, the financially secure already have this capacity via social advantages, but allowing for “fully customizable” embryos and the creation of preference-matched children may encourage eugenic practices.

Still, we’re very far away from tailor-made humans “hatched” on a production line, and, in reality, it is highly unlikely EctoLife will ever come to be – firstly, due to it being outside of the realms of scientific possibility, and, secondly, because of the current restrictions in the U.S. attached to the editing of human embryos. At the moment, EctoLife is simply no more than a fanciful thought experiment. However, it certainly encourages us to revisit the ethical debate over where to draw the line between prevention and enhancement, as well as whether the benefits of gene editing can outweigh the potential societal harms.

Consent, Commodification, and Anderson Cooper’s Surrogacy Case 

Anderson Cooper standing at a podium with a woman sitting in a chair behind him

Recently, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper announced the birth of his son through surrogacy. On June 10th, Cooper and his son made an appearance on People magazine where Cooper talked about the experience of surrogacy and raising his 6 week old son. However, his decision to have a baby through surrogacy has been met with significant controversy: where some congratulated Anderson Cooper, others questioned the ethics of surrogacy. Surprisingly, surrogacy isn’t a partisan issue where even in left leaning circles, many disagree about surrogacy’s place as a way for gay or lesbian couples to have a chance to raise a child while others argue it is a commodification of women’s bodies. Anderson Cooper’s surrogacy case is now starting larger discussions about the ethics of surrogacy. 

The first question that arises is if surrogates can give informed consent. The definition of informed consent is stated as permission granted in the knowledge of the possible consequences with full knowledge of the possible risks and benefits. When a surrogate signs a contract to give all legal rights away to the connection of the child, many times, surrogates do not know the feeling of the emotional bond of mother to baby nor the experience of carrying a child. So how could a surrogate, especially a first-time mother, know the experience of having a strong emotional bond to the baby? They don’t, so to have potential surrogates sign contracts, while not knowing the experience of being mothers, means that surrogates cannot give informed consent because they cannot possibly know what it is like to give up their baby. 

However, even if a surrogate is not a first-time mother and can give full consent, one needs to consider whose choice is forgotten in this case? The baby’s choice. If you put yourself in the baby’s position, would you want to stay with your mother or a foreign family you are being sold to? Not only can some surrogate mothers not give full informed consent, but the baby’s preferred choice has not been taken into account. Many think only two parties are involved in surrogacy: the surrogate and the adopters, but the baby is the third party that has to be considered.  

Secondly, surrogates cannot provide informed consent because surrogacy disproportionally attracts women of lower income. This explains why surrogacy is especially prevalent in developing countries such as Ukraine, Russia, and India where laws are lax and many people are of lower income. Whether or not surrogates are from the US or other countries, women who are struggling through financially hard times are more vulnerable to coercion due to the mindset of scarcity when struggling through poverty. Women are often coerced into risking their health or even their lives when signing the unbreakable contract to giving away the child. Furthermore, when in circumstances of financial scarcity, potential surrogates are more likely to sign exploitative contracts where pregnancy-related medical issues during or after pregnancy are not covered or where the surrogate is not sufficiently paid. 

Another key part of surrogacy is if it pays for the baby, the service, or both. The answer yields two very different moral viewpoints; if surrogacy pays for a baby, this means a baby is being bought and sold, putting a price tag on human life. This carries enormous consequences to individual rights of the modern world because it would mean human life and value can be measured instead of being infinitely valuable. But if surrogacy only pays for the service of carrying the baby, some would say there isn’t much of a difference between a surrogate and a 24/7, nine-month-long babysitter. The debate around if surrogacy is a payment for the service or the baby depends on the situation. If the surrogate mother is artificially inseminated, some argue surrogacy pays for the baby because it uses the oocyte of the surrogate to produce the baby. If the surrogate were to carry an embryo of the biological parents, then it would be considered a service, because the surrogate is only raising the baby in the womb, not providing reproductive material. However, this reasoning leads to the assumption that new life (reproduction) starts at conception. If one believes that life starts at birth, then surrogacy implies paying for the baby because the pregnancy is part of the process of making new life. Surrogacy would only seem ethically permissible if the surrogate is carrying the “living” embryo of the two biological parents, because the embryo has already been created and now carrying it is a service. Even then, a biological reproductive service seems quite different in moral worth from an economic service like babysitting. 

However, advocates of surrogacy would argue that disallowing women to sell their reproductive services would be unequal, because men are able to sell their reproductive services. So why would we allow sperm donation but not allow surrogacy? There are two significant differences between sperm donors and surrogate mothers. Sperm donors can give implied consent because they have full knowledge of how their sperm will be used, whereas surrogates might experience unexpected effects like an emotional bond to the baby. Secondly, surrogacy requires nine months of pregnancy and the delivery of a baby, while sperm donors have no interaction with the baby; therefore, these differences cannot be held at an equal standard. Rather, egg donors seem to be the equal standard to sperm donors since both meet the same standards of consent and disconnect from offspring. In surrogacy, the moral worth of mother and baby and the ability to develop new life is inexplicably precious, but putting a monetary value on pregnancy might degrade the intrinsic value of carrying and delivering a baby. Society would no longer view pregnancy as an unbreakable bond with a baby but view it as something able to be bought and sold. 

To exemplify this concept of how money changes societal morals, consider the case of an Israeli child care center. The childcare center wanted to decrease the number of parents late to pick up their children, so it implemented a small fine for parents who arrived late for pickup. The result had the opposite effect than many predicted: more parents picked up their children late; the societal moral standard to not give the childcare workers a burden was gone. By implementing a monetary value on being late, it degraded the moral standard of being late. The childcare center reversed the decision after experiencing higher rates of late pickups, but even afterward, the childcare center continued to experience the high rates of late pickups. Once a monetary number is assigned to something, it can degrade the moral value of it. The same might happen to pregnancy if surrogacy was widespread: the intrinsic value of the bond between mother and baby would simply be defined by financial cost. The mother to child bond is something inexplicably precious. We see it when adopted children go looking for their biological mothers or mothers spend years looking for their lost child. This emotional bond is sacred; it’s something no one would put a moral utility measurement on. However, surrogacy risks breaking the mother to baby bond because something infinitely and intrinsically valued has changed to a monetary value.   

In the end, although Anderson Cooper’s case has been one of few high profile cases of celebrities taking the path of surrogacy, the surrogacy process is often used by many people who want biologically related children. On the surface, surrogacy may seem like a 9 month biological babysitter, but surrogacy brings along serious moral questions that need to be addressed. From (un)informed consent, exploitative contracts, the transaction of human beings, and the degradation of mother-baby bonds, surrogacy could have dangerous moral implications to human wellbeing and the core question of human value.