How New Technology Could Threaten A Woman's Right To Abortion

Image: Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania/YouTube Screenshot

In April, scientists achieved a major breakthrough that could one day drastically improve the fate of babies born extremely prematurely. Eight premature baby lambs spent their last month of development in an external womb that resembled a high-tech ziplock bag. At the time, the oldest lamb was nearly a year old, and still seemed to be developing normally.

This technology, if it works in humans, could one day prove lifesaving for the 30,000 or so babies each year that are born earlier than 26 weeks into pregnancy.

It could also complicate -- and even jeopardize -- the right to an abortion in an America in which that right is predicated on whether a foetus is "viable."

"The Supreme Court has pegged the constitutional treatment of abortion to the viability of a foetus," I. Glenn Cohen, a Harvard Law School bioethicist, told Gizmodo. "This has the potential to really disrupt things, first by asking the question of whether a foetus could be considered 'viable' at the time of abortion if you could place it in an artificial womb."

Cohen raised this issue in a report for the Hastings Center published on Friday.

A normal human pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. In Roe v. Wade, the case that ultimately legalised abortion in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that whether a foetus was capable of surviving outside the womb was an important test of whether an abortion was legal. The Court said that viability typically began at some point during the third trimester, which begins at 24 weeks, but could really only be determined on a case by case basis. In 1992, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey reaffirmed that viability is key in defining a state's power to regulate abortion. The number of weeks at which you can legally procure an abortion varies between 22 and 24 weeks by state. (If a woman's health is at risk, the state cannot enforce an abortion ban at any stage of development.)

The human version of the external lamb womb that researchers eventually envision creating would be designed for premature babies born as early as 23 weeks. Researchers hope to test it on premature human babies within five years. (Lambs have a shorter gestation period; the 105- to 115-day-old premature lamb fetuses were the equivalent of about 23 weeks in a human.)

In the future, Cohen said, it stands to reason that this technology could save the lives of fetuses born even earlier. Imagine then, that you had made the decision to terminate a pregnancy at 18 weeks, but that such a technology technically made it viable for the foetus to be born at that point in development, then finish developing outside the womb. Would an abortion still be legal?

"It could wind up being that you only have the right to an abortion up until you can put [a foetus] in the artificial womb," said Cohen. "It's terrifying."

The advent of such artificial womb technology highlights how fragile -- and dated -- much of the law surrounding the right to an abortion really is.

In a 1983 decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor argued that Roe vs. Wade was on a "collision course with itself," because improvements in technology would make it possible for a foetus to continually be viable earlier in the course of a pregnancy. In some cases, today, a foetus can now survive outside the womb at 22 weeks, two whole weeks earlier than at the time of Roe vs. Wade.

"In 1990 a woman maybe could have an abortion at 25 weeks, but in 2020 perhaps it will be 20 weeks," said Cohen. "There's a problem when an abortion that would be legal in one decade is not in another under the Constitution."

Developing technology also tests the rhetoric surrounding the right to choose. A woman's right to control her own body is a common legal and ethical argument made in favour of abortion. Under that logic, though, the law could simply compel a woman to put her foetus into an external womb, giving her back control of her own body but still forcing her into parenthood.

The way the law has thus far defined it, Cohen said, is that a woman has a right to stop carrying a child. It doesn't consider whether she also has a right to control what happens to the child if she is no longer responsible for carrying it. It could come down to an interpretation of what qualifies as control.

"If you think the reason we have abortion rights is that women have a right to control their own bodies, this is saying you can control your own body, just give the foetus to someone else and they will put it in an artificial womb," he said.

How invasive the procedure to remove a foetus, Cohen said, could influence how that all shakes out. If removing a foetus from the womb still required surgery, for example, a woman might be able to legally refuse surgery instead.

All of this may seem too hypothetical to be worth considering -- after all, there's no telling whether the technology that worked in lambs will translate to human babies. And the number of women who have abortions that late into their pregnancy is small. Somewhere around 9,090 women in the US had abortions after their 21st week of pregnancy in 2012, accounting for just 1.3 per cent of all abortions. (Many of that subset seek abortions for health reasons. And again, new technologies would be unlikely to impact late-stage abortions deemed necessary for the health of a mother.)

But Sandra Day O'Connor was right -- already, states have been emboldened by improving neonatal care in making laws that restrict abortion earlier and earlier in a woman's pregnancy. Physicians, legal experts and bioethicists have long taken issue with viability as a standard for legality. (There is a lot of inconclusive debate about what might make a better standard.)

"There have always been problems with this standard," Cohen said. "But now there's good reason to believe it could get even worse."



    Would have preferred to read about this amazing technology without it being angled to push an agenda.

      This. The discussion over abortion is irrelevant to the advance in technology, and one better served in a discussion of abortion policy rather than introducing a new medical advancement. It’s a sad reflection on society that instead of going ‘This could save lives or improve the quality of life’ we instead go ‘But what about abortion?’

      Very true.

      But on the other hand, my mind would've hit this question eventually, among a host of others both positive and negative.


    am i the only one that thinks this earth could do with a little of survival of the fittest and reducing the population (and i dont mean by abortion, just natural selection and that sort of thing) rather then pushing the population beyond the earth's capable limits for sustainability making it horrible for everyone? i cherish human life, i do, and i dont wish death upon anyone, and i also dont mean for this to come across as me hating people. i just think about future generations and the gene pool and whether we really are creating a better future, or setting ourselves up for one massive spectacular fall.

      So what about people with a terminal illness? Should we just leave them to survive by themselves? Medicine and Science have brought hope to thousands of parents who, if their child births early this device could help save them

      Last edited 31/07/17 5:29 pm

        so you can tell me that the track the planet appears to be on with the human population at the moment is going to end well in the future?

          I think this device will not change the track of population. China and India are over populating the planet

            yeah, I agree with you. I guess I was speaking more generally. I really am quite torn in regards to a device like this. I know if my wife was pregnant and say died and this device meant saving an unborn child, id probably throw both of my kidneys and whoever elses I could harvest at them as payment to make it happen.
            here's to hoping we can one day return to a sustainable earth whether that is with or without technological help.

          The world population is slowing and will peak in the coming years. Some countries are seeing a decline. Japan could go from 170 million to 40 million over the next 100 years if it's current track continues.
          There is a good Doco, Don't Panic - The Truth About Population.

          This will have different impacts socially.

            awesome, thanks for the link.
            it would be really nice if mainstream media werent so controlled by the rich. a bit of hard truth is what the people on this planet need to get some perspective i reckon. on all matters that is.

      Some times I agree with the idea that we should let some people die off but... if its just over population you're worried about just hope that china/india start having their birth rate decline like the west has.

      Overpopulation is relative and modified by technology too. Not every premature baby has a genetic defect.

    ignoring for a moment that this is another American article aimed at Americans.

    There's little bit of faulty logic.

    giving her back control of her own body but still forcing her into parenthood.

    Has adoption been banned in the US?

      agreed people should exercise control in the first place

      It's not just about adoption though! If I was a woman that was raped and they forced me to have a procedure to remove the foetus that was kept alive, I think I would still feel bound to it. So, in that situation, which I believe is relevant, I would still have been forced into parenthood.

        But you're not, really - you don't raise the child or continue any ongoing attachment, just the same as a surrogate mother over in India isn't entering parenthood because she birthed a kid that immediately goes to the new family.

        Doesn't diminish the fact that it's a traumatic event, but it's not parenthood if you're not actually parenting.

          You've missed my point, I'm talking about emotions and the deep seated primal urge to look after your offspring, whether you logically want it or not.

            That’s not parenthood, and plenty of people suppress that urge or may even find the child repulsive so it’s probably not as deep seated as you imply.

            Again it doesn’t diminish the trauma, but it isn’t parenthood. You’re probably looking for a different word, maybe ‘maternal instinct’ if such a thing really exists in humans.

              Yeah "maternal instinct" would have been more succinct, however, I don't think it diminishes just because the pregnancy wasn't planned. Don't underestimate the power of hormones and instinct, they play a massive role in human evolution.

                I don't - but humans more so than any other (known) species on the planet have a greater ability to override that instinct. It isn't quite that straightforward.

            And aborting it prevents an emotional bond?

              Pretty hard to have a bond with something that has been destroyed. Sure it's traumatic, but it does fade with time.

                And pretty hard to have a bond with something that you never saw and will never see again.

                  See, now you're just being silly. My wife had to give her first born up to adoption for reasons that aren't anyone else's business but hers and around 20 years later she could no longer fight the urge to find her. Similarly, there are thousands of people who were themselves adopted and have a driving need to find their mother. There is no blanket solution here, human nature is just that, Human Nature!

                And women who have had an abortion never have regrets about what could have been? I know for a fact that this can and does happen, and is all the more destructive for not being able to be fullfilled.

    There are a lot of things we arent allowed to do with our bodies by law, and ending a life you carelessly created because you didn't take proper safe sex precautions is the one you are most concerned about.

    If this technology ever carries over to humans, i'm glad it will help distraught parents save the life of their premature child and don't care one bit if it inconveniences people like yourself.

      And of course you'll refuse to provide any material support for any "unwanted" child that is born (a bit of an inconvenience to people like yourself).

        Why do you just assume that we won't provide material support? Sure like anything there will be some that won't, but I know so many in my church circles who are already or keen to provide a place to live, monetary support and even adoption into their own family. Myself included, they're wanted by us, happy to pay more taxes too! Let's make it easier and promote wonderful services and support, adoption included! :)

          That guest 'almost' is a waste of time with nothing useful to say, no use replying to his nonsense.

          Not to deny the truth of your own personal position, but the evidence to date demonstrates that (at least in Australia and the US) the political party that is likely to want to limit access to abortion is also the political party that is likely to want to limit access to financial support for single mothers or families with low income in terms of food support, housing, and education.

          That isn't representative of everyone who would like to limit access to abortion, but it is representative of enough of them that the politics is the way it is.

      So you've never made a mistake that you can't reverse then?

      And a woman's body can tell the difference between sex and rape and can stop a pregnancy when it is genuine rape, right?

      Just because you use safe sex doesn't mean it's always fool proof.. as of 2017 my best friend has a 10yo.. after using condoms and being on the pill. Not to mention in some cases things like condoms can rarely break as well.

      accidents do happen even when you are careful

      No form of contraception is 100%, and people make mistakes. Oh, not to mention, you know... rape.

    Will be super interesting to see how the legal side plays out. If the fetus can be removed with zero risk to the mother at a very early stage, it does potentially give fathers who currently have very little say when it comes to abortions an option. I can see why the law is as it stands today where mothers are expected to carry the fetus to birth, but if there's an option where the mother can opt out of motherhood but the father stay in with minimal physical impact to the mother, that could really change the pregnancy debate.

    Also would be interesting when it comes to acting as a host for another families child by allowing a surrogate to assist a couple without needing to go a full 40 weeks. Presumably someone could act as a surrogate without having to take any time off work at all for example, potentially reducing many of the financial and non financial burdens.

    Last edited 31/07/17 8:05 pm

      It will indeed.

      Based on the current state of affairs where the choice to have an abortion lies with the mother, and the father has no say, it seems that to the extent the laws reflect society we do not consider the presence of someone's genetic material as sufficient grounds to allow them to force a termination. Rather, the idea of the mother being the one who chooses whether or not to terminate seems founded (as you said) in the fact that the mother is the one who carries the fetus through development. If they no longer had to carry the fetus through development, then the weight of that would be reduced.

      Which is pretty much your point.

    A young girl 16 yrs olds who lived across the road from us made me so proud one day when she took me with her to visit her snobby rich grand mother who had put great pressure on her to abort he baby when her bub was about 3 months old. When grandma asked to hold her grand child the girl handed her little girl to her great grandmother and said here you are Grace (not the real name) this is your great grandma "she wanted me to murder you before you were born". All I could think while trying very hard not to smile was "you go girl, good on ya!". It saddens me no end that the main slant is the woman's right over the child right to live with the new technology. Maybe the writer should listen to the 16 yr old? The writer has clearly never held a little life in your hands that has only been alive 8 months and out of the womb for 1 month as she takes her last breath because this technology is not yet available. Morals or a simple human heart much!

      That's a charming story, and it is awful that the grandmother would have pressured the 16 year old to have an abortion, but the take-away from that isn't that abortion shouldn't be allowed but rather than it is important to ensure women are not coerced into having an abortion they don't want.

      To generalise this to whether abortion should be available would rely on a central, and dubious, assumption being true: that the outcome for one person who chose, despite pressure from others, to have a child rather than have an abortion reflect in any way the outcome for someone else who does not have an abortion despite not wanting a child.

    after all, there's no telling whether the technology that worked in lambs will translate to human babies.Oh, it will, just give it time. I really don't like the idea of a raped woman possibly being forced to either bring the child up, or fostering it out. Plus the whole, court forcing her to go through an invasive procedure, just to satisfy a certain demographic of the population, just stiks to high heaven.

      not to mention said demographic screaming about it, wont be volunteering to foster or adopt said children as a rule.

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