Artificial Wombs Birth a Complex Controversy

Plus: The paradox of protecting houses of worship

Person with hands on pregnant stomach
Sigbe Øllgaard / Getty

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What do you think about artificial wombs? Are they ethical? Desirable? Should they be a priority for scientists? If they become advanced enough to be viable, would you ever use one? How would a world in which they were available differ from ours? Any thoughts on this subject are welcome.

Email your answers to conor@theatlantic.com. I’ll publish a selection of answers in Friday’s newsletter.

Conversations of Note

As you may have guessed, one of last week’s most unexpected conversation topics was artificial wombs. It began when Elon Musk tweeted about declining births and his fears about population collapse. “If there aren’t enough people for Earth,” he wrote, “then there definitely won’t be enough for Mars.” The tech investor Sahil Lavingia replied, “We should be investing in technology that makes having kids much faster/easier/cheaper/more accessible. Synthetic wombs, etc.”

Charlie Warzel critiques that leap to a “very elaborate, hypothetical-but-definitely-paradigm-shifting, futuristic technology to fix current problems.”

The writer Amil Niazi countered that what’s needed to increase childbearing is “paid parental leave, affordable childcare, universal pre-k, universal health and dental, better public transportation, better funding for public schools.”

Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent at Reason, addressed the question of how close researchers are to perfecting artificial wombs:

Back in 2017, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported keeping premature lamb fetuses alive in plastic bags of amniotic fluid for four weeks. While the researchers’ aim is a treatment for saving and bringing to term extremely premature human fetuses, this is nevertheless a step toward developing synthetic wombs for human gestatelings. In March 2021, a team of Israeli researchers reported their success in growing developmentally normal mouse embryos for up to eleven days inside artificial uteruses. This is remarkable because full mouse gestation is around 20 days. In the future, said Paul Tesar, a developmental biologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, “it is not unreasonable that we might have the capacity to develop a human embryo from fertilization to birth entirely outside the uterus.”

The web magazine Works in Progress happens to have a lengthy argument for artificial wombs in its current issue. Aria Babu writes, in part,

Human beings have the hardest pregnancies in the animal kingdom. Because we walk on two legs, we have unusually narrow hips. Because we have such large brains, we have large heads that are difficult to give birth to. The Book of Genesis was right—the price we pay for the knowledge of good and evil is sorrow when we bring forth children. It is a testament to our capacity for love that most mothers choose to have children despite this, but not all get that choice. In 1978, Louise Joy Brown became the first human being to be created without sex. I hope in my lifetime to see the first human being created without pain.

Back in 2003, the late Charles Krauthammer made this case against artificial wombs:

Why do we want the embryo to be housed in its mother? One of the reasons is that it creates an innate connection between the child and the mother, and the mother becomes uniquely protective and attached. That’s human nature. It’s even animal nature as well … And it’s not the mixing or the “yucking” that’s at issue here. It may be severing the connection between the child and the mother, which is a way of protecting that child by giving him a belonginghood to someone who will care. Once you put him in an animal, which is a thing for these purposes, or a machine, which might happen in the future, you create a completely atomized and defenseless creature, and that opens the way to all kinds of tyrannies, social control, and lack of autonomy, which we would not want.

Christine Rosen, who brought the Krauthammer quote to my attention, has more on the case against in The New Atlantis.

And Tyler Cowen wonders about the ideology of the debate:

On one hand, it is pro-natalist, so that makes it right-wing. On the other hand it is (ostensibly?) feminist, relieving a burden on women, so that makes it left-wing. It also could be construed as trying to “equalize family,” which would be left-wing or even communist. Under another reading, it is about “corporate babies,” which pushes it back into the right-wing camp.

From yet another perspective, no one really thinks it will happen, at least not soon. So the symbolic message for the world of today is “Women are not that important and they could be replaced by machines.” Maybe neither the right-wing nor the left-wing like that message (albeit for different reasons), but it has a tinge of “someday this differential burden will be gone and then you left-wing feminists will need to stop whining.”

Which puts it back a bit into the right-wing camp. So which is it?

On Protecting Against COVID-19

Mary Katharine Ham argues that overprotective pandemic policies are hurting the young:

Children are the least at-risk population, but in many areas of the country they continue to face draconian mitigation policies—either in their name (low chance of serious COVID complications doesn’t mean no chance) or in the name of protecting their elders. As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, we’ve inflicted “more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.” You don’t have to be a psychologist to see something wrong with that exchange. In our focus on one threat, we’ve let a thousand others flourish: learning loss, destabilization of the public-school system due to under-enrollment, self-harm, behavioral problems.

… The major metropolitan areas of the United States were a global outlier in 2020 and 2021 for extended school closures. (Schools were largely open in Europe and Scandinavia and many other spots in the U.S.)

… Most children are neither in grave danger nor do they pose a grave danger to others—especially now that vaccines are widely, freely available—but we routinely treat them as if they were. And the media have too often fanned the flames of parents’ fears instead of quelling them, keeping us stuck in the amygdala portion of our response to COVID risk.

Aris Katzourakis warns that endemic COVID-19 won’t necessarily be a rosy scenario:

A disease can be endemic and both widespread and deadly. Malaria killed more than 600,000 people in 2020. Ten million fell ill with tuberculosis that same year and 1.5 million died. Endemic certainly does not mean that evolution has somehow tamed a pathogen so that life simply returns to “normal” …

Thinking that endemicity is both mild and inevitable is more than wrong, it is dangerous: it sets humanity up for many more years of disease, including unpredictable waves of outbreaks. It is more productive to consider how bad things could get if we keep giving the virus opportunities to outwit us. Then we might do more to ensure that this does not happen.

On Protecting Houses of Worship

Juliette Kayyem was hired as a security consultant by the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh––and argued that the assignment was more challenging than protecting other sorts of places:

At airports, stadiums, even schools, safety and security procedures are put in place to protect the essence of the institution itself: travel, recreation, education. We may not like the fortress aesthetic, but we’ve come to accept it.

But what if the essence of a place is that it is defenseless? What if its ability to welcome others, to be hospitable to strangers, is its identity? What if vulnerability is its unstated mission? That is the challenge I hadn’t considered. I tread carefully here speaking of a religion that I know only through marriage. I have strong feelings about Israel, not recently known for its peaceful stance toward its Arab residents. But in the U.S., for a Jewish congregation to become a fortress would seem too militaristic, too aggressive. To make a soft target harder would more likely change the target than deter the attacker.

In security, we view vulnerabilities as inherently bad. We solve the problem with layered defenses: more locks, more surveillance. Deprive strangers of access to your temple, I urged the committee members, and have congregants carry ID. They would have none of it. Access was a vulnerability embedded in the institution, and no security expert could change that—we do logistics, not souls.

Provocation of the Week

In Aeon, Janet Jones muses on the equine-human relationship, offering some intriguing claims:

Brain-to-brain communication between horses and riders is an intricate neural dance. These two species, one prey and one predator, are living temporarily in each other’s brains, sharing neural information back and forth in real time without linguistic or mechanical mediation. It is a partnership like no other. Together, a horse-and-human team experiences a richer perceptual and attentional understanding of the world than either member can achieve alone. And, ironically, this extended interspecies mind operates well not because the two brains are similar to each other, but because they are so different.

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