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With Artificial Wombs, Sci-Fi Horrors Would Become Reality

Using artificial wombs to gestate thousands of potentially parentless designer babies should be reserved for science fiction, not our future.

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You may have seen the stunning viral film called “EctoLife” recently. 

With a professional voiceover and a detailed CGI tour of the baby-growing facility, you might think the enterprise of growing designer babies outside a mother’s womb is here. While it is not yet reality, scientists have been making progress on the technology in recent years.

Artificial wombs in themselves could save premature babies. Rather than promote that unequivocal good, however, the vision of “EctoLife” is a tangle of concepts foreseen in famous dystopian science fiction stories like Brave New World and “Gattaca,” made to seem like a positive revolution in care and convenience. 

Consider EctoLife a peek at the playbook of reckless amoral revolutionaries. Use it to prepare. Synthetic wombs and genetic engineering will soon become serious matters of public policy.  

The video’s creator, Hashem Al-Ghaili, is a self-described “science communicator” with a background in microbiology. Al-Ghaili created multiple positive videos on the topic of artificial wombs and designer babies before releasing “EctoLife,” which differs from his other videos in that its realism and detail position it between vision and hoax. The video could be used to attract potential investors to the horrific project. 

The pitch begins by promising to solve an issue everyone agrees is a problem. EctoLife, a sleek facility with rows and rows of artificial womb pods gestating “lab-grown” babies, is a way to make premature births and C-sections “a thing of the past” and “a perfect solution for women who’ve had their uteruses removed due to cancer or other complications.” 

Everyone wants to solve that, right? And it is powered completely by renewable energy!  

Then suddenly the narrative jumps from ectogenesis facilities solving personal medical issues to being national assets.  

“EctoLife is designed to help countries that are suffering from severe population decline, including Japan, Bulgaria, South Korea and many others,” the narrator states. Each facility could grow up to 30,000 babies per year, the voiceover says.  

Surely their populations have not been suffering from chronic mass infertility. Their population decline is due to a lack of sex that allows for the possibility of conception.  

This implies that ectogenesis labs would be paid for and run by the government or government contractors, or else that the government would offer financial incentives to couples to have a baby grown for them. Heck, if the population decline is so serious, why not just have the state grow the babies and raise them, as in a science fiction novel by Aldous Huxley?

No need to have parents involved at all. They would just imprint the child with their own ideas and doctrines that might cause social friction, and children would develop special bonds with their parents that might jeopardize their allegiance to the state — er — the common welfare. Surely, Al-Ghaili has thought this all through.  

Continuing, the voiceover says each pod has a screen that would report vital signs and any potential genetic abnormalities. Who would bet that any abnormality would mean an instant abortion of the growing baby? This is either a profitable business used by rich couples or one that spends state money. And the state is not going to pay to grow a disabled child.  

Moving on, each artificial womb has internal speakers that play “a wide range of sounds and music” to the babies and connect to an app for parents (if parents are involved), because babies start developing language recognition in utero.  

I am sure picking a playlist and singing into a phone for your babies is a perfect one-for-one replacement for babies being nurtured within their mother’s own body, hearing her heartbeat, feeling her move, and hearing her and others’ language day in and day out. In the envisioned world of EctoLife, the struggles of pregnancy and childbirth are inconveniences to be left in the past, not things that indelibly bond mother and child and emotionally invest mothers in their babies’ well-being.  

But perhaps the Digipet approach to prenatal development will be a hit with iGen. It comes with a virtual reality headset to explore the artificial womb! Because that’s “bonding.” The artificial womb also has an AI-controlled feeding system. As if we do not already have reason to be skittish about AI.  

Given ChatGPT’s many bizarre moments, it may call to mind the film (based on a short story) called “I Am Mother,” where an AI gestates, selects, raises, and murders human children in an attempt to get the perfect restart to humanity. Hopefully, no AI develops a sinister plot at EctoLife.  

Finally, the voiceover reveals the crown jewel of the EctoLife experience: designer babies. All EctoLife embryos are carefully selected to avoid genetic abnormalities (and the unselected destroyed, of course), but with the “Elite Package,” commissioners of the new human will be offered “the opportunity to genetically engineer the embryo.” 

“Thanks to CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool,” a baby’s hair and eye color, physical strength, intelligence, height, and (problematically) skin tone can be customized. Did Al-Ghaili ever watch the 1997 film “Gattaca“?

To eliminate predispositions for disease through gene editing might be ethically permissible, but it is not hard to see how a rise in designer children will open a whole new era of classism and discrimination. Will one’s gene sequence be put on a college application? Will people with “inferior” genes be relegated to certain housing sectors or occupations? Will designer genetics be something talent scouts filter by? Something prestigious roles and social clubs are reserved for?  

In a previous video, Al-Ghaili said, “By engineering a human being from scratch, we can redesign ourselves to be more resistant to diseases and to achieve more intelligence and better looks.” He dedicated a whole video to explaining how designer babies would be made, only presenting some mild criticisms of the experimental technology toward the end, such as the fact that it would be quite expensive and that the long-term consequences of editing the genome are unknown.  

We have entered an era where genetic manipulation is no longer a science fiction novelty. It is a reality of the present. … Gene editing is here to stay, and it is only going to get more sophisticated. 

This is the most powerful argument for such innovations, of course: their inevitability. We will work out the kinks as we go, say the tech visionaries coasting into the future on the sheer momentum of overcoming previous ethical concerns (such as in vitro fertilization).  

By now, many people have woken up to the crisis of population decline. But the solution is not, as tech investor Sahil Lavignia wrote last year, to make having babies “faster, easier, cheaper” and name synthetic wombs as the solution. 

The hardest part of having children is not usually the first nine months of gestation, or even getting pregnant. It is everything that comes after that because parenting is hard.  

And there is another hard part that should come well before having kids: finding the right spouse to have and raise them with. Artificial wombs will not help you find a spouse or raise your kids. In fact, their existence might even cause couples to push off kids further into the future —when they can afford to use the technology. 

Artificial wombs may be perfected in the not-too-distant future. In 2017, researchers at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia gestated a premature goat for four weeks in a plastic sac filled with amniotic fluid, providing evidence the concept could work for very premature human babies.  

Like many technologies, it can be used ethically or unethically. Saving premature babies is unequivocally a moral good, but using the technology to gestate thousands of potentially parentless designer babies should be reserved for the premise of another science fiction story, not our future.  


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