Recent animal research suggests that it may soon be possible to support the human fetus in an artificial uterine environment for part of a pregnancy. A technique of extending gestation in this way (“ectogestation”) could be offered to parents of extremely premature infants (EPIs) to improve outcomes for their child. The use of artificial uteruses for ectogestation could generate ethical questions because of the technology’s potential impact on the point of “viability”—loosely defined as the stage of pregnancy beyond which the fetus may survive external to the womb. Several medical decisions during the perinatal period are based on the gestation at which infants are considered viable, for example decisions about newborn resuscitation and abortion, and ectogestation has the potential to impact on these. Despite these possible implications, there is little existing evidence or analysis of how this technology would affect medical practice. In this paper, we combine empirical data with ethical analysis. We report a survey of 91 practicing Australian obstetricians and neonatologists; we aimed to assess their conceptual understanding of “viability,” and what ethical consequences they envisage arising from improved survival of EPIs. We also assess what the ethical implications of extending gestation should be for newborn and obstetric care. We analyze the concept of viability and argue that while ectogestation might have implications for the permissibility of neonatal life-prolonging treatment at extremely early gestation, it should not necessarily have implications for abortion policy. We compare our ethical findings with the results of the survey.
- artificial womb
- medical ethics
- neonatal resuscitation
- premature, termination of pregnancy