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Making Better Babies? - The Ethics of High-Tech Birthing

james hörner

in this era of the Human Genome Project, bio-engineering, and the exponentially expanding growth of science as a panacea for all that ails us, it comes as no surprise to learn of the research currently being done in the realm of childbirth. Armed with such questions as 'why should women suffer from the pains of childbirth?' and 'how can we best improve the life-chances of newborn babies?', Dr. Joseph Nada heads a research project which hopes to answer these intriguing dilemmas.

Their work is an obvious development in the propagation of the human species, yet this kind of research feels more like sci-fi than reality. Working from their facilities at the University of Vancouver, Dr. Nada and his associates have been involved in the development of artificial wombs. These are not the sort of test-tube babies that we tend to think of, however. Utilizing leading-edge synthetics and electronics, these wombs look more like a high-tech handbag than an artificial incubator.

The concept is relatively simple - it involves the external fertilization of the egg, then the transplanting of the new, budding life to the Artificial Symbiotic Womb (ASW). The womb, made of a tough, rubbery substance, is impenetrable to accidental punctures and can be worn over the shoulders of the mother or father. One of the more interesting features is a zipper-opened flap which reveals a transparent window through which doctors can easily monitor the child's progress. Through the use of several discrete nozzles, doctors can also extract and monitor amniotic fluids and run a series of diagnostic tests on the unborn child. The greatest advantages is the ease with which the ASW allows necessary operations and other medical procedures to be done 'in utero', so to speak.

Critics of ASW technology feel that the artificiality of the entire procedure will eliminate the prenatal bonding which mothers normally develop with their child via the womb. Dr. Nada, however, sees the use of relatively simple technology as resolving this issue. By implanting a micro-chip bio-rhythmic monitor in the mother, information about the mother, including heart and respiration rates, could then be transmitted to the ASW. In effect, the fetus would be duped into believing it was in its mother's womb. As well, the ASW would be kept at the mother's body temperature, and by wearing it mothers would be able to feel a strong bond with their baby.

Other issues which have been raised revolve primarily around bio-medical ethics. Some critics see the ASW technology as yet another step towards state control over child-birth. Joyce Samuels, of the Fetuses United Network, denounces the research as another means by which the sanctity of the womb is being attacked by science. Still others attack the work as simply another attempt to increase class division, since the technology will likely cost a premium and only be available from private facilities. In other words, while ASW technology appears to be making life better, it is only making certain lives better. The ability to have children without suffering the pains of childbirth will surely come with a hefty price tag.

Regardless of the criticism, this research is turning heads and attracting increasingly international interest. Dr. Nada feels the Canadian government will prove slow to act on the marketing and production of the ASW, and that foreign investors will provide the capital necessary to get this venture off the ground.

One thing is for sure; mothers in this new millennium will be finding themselves faced with a multiplicity of birthing options, and advantages only technology can bring. Along with this however, come the sobering, ethical questions couples will have to ask themselves before putting the future of their offspring into the hands of science.


[this was my attempt at an april fool's article]


james hörner edits canadian content.

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