Tuesday, July 26, 2005

As the John Roberts Supreme Court nomination fight opens, the predicted battle to save or kill Roe vs. Wade already has taken to the streets, the Internet and the media. But the 32-year old constitutional right to an abortion may face its gravest challenge not from red-state values triumphing on the Supreme Court, but from medical research being carried out in elite blue-state universities and in Europe and Asia.

It is the very language of Roe which carries the seed of its own possible irrelevance within the next several years. Roe enunciated the more or less unencumbered right of a woman to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability. After viability, the right of states to regulate or prohibit abortions arises. The court defined legal viability being “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.” But medical science is remorselessly advancing on two fronts along paths that may fairly soon seize and destroy in a scientific pincer movement the viability of Roe’s reasoning.

When Roe vs. Wade was handed down in 1973, the survivability of prematurely born babies was not medically possible before 28 weeks of gestation. Today, babies bornafteronly20 weeks of gestation routinely survive, and thus are viable under the Roedefinition(andthus potentially legally safe from the abortionist’s medical weapons.) But radical research may soon reduce that 20 weeks to just a few, or perhaps no weeks. At Juntendo University of Tokyo, Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara and his team of scientists have successfully removed goat fetuses from mother goats and placed them in tanks of amniotic fluid stabilized at goat body temperature, while connecting the baby goat’s umbilical cord to machines that pump in nutrients and dispose of waste.

ThepurposeofDr. Kuwabara’s research is to provide a safe home for human fetuses prematurely expelled from the mother’s womb. According to the British Guardian newspaper, it is expected that such methods capable of sustaining a child for the full nine months “will become reality in a few years.” Meanwhile at Cornell University’s Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, Dr. Hung-Ching Liu and her team of scientists have been approaching the problem of fetal out-of-womb survival from the other side.

She is developing a full artificial womb that can receive a just-conceived embryo with the hope that it will successfully gestate for the full nine months.

Her team’s method is to remove cells from the mother’s endometrium (the lining of the womb), and grow those cells in a hormones-and-growth-enzymes “bath.” Then they let the cells rapidly grow onascaffoldmadeof biodegradablematerial molded in the shape of a uterus, into which she plants the embryo. By this method Dr. Liu has already successfully kept alive a brand new human embryo/fetus for six days, after which she voluntarily ended the fetus’s existence to comply with current medical-ethics regulations.

While Dr. Kuwabara’s technology is being designed for normal pregnancies cut short by miscarriages, Dr. Liu’s technologies will have special appeal to homosexual couples who want to have a child, as well as women with defective wombs and women who just can’t be bothered to be pregnant (although the first few minutes of such pregnancies might still be valued for extraneous reasons.) But both — or either — of the technologies, once routinely available, could have a profound, if unintended, effect on the constitutional right of abortion.

Once such technologies make it medically possible for a fetus to be “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid” the language of Roe vs. Wade will not have to be overturned. It could stay on the books as legally valid, but factually meaningless.

Of course the ironies of all this cut so many ways, it is hard to count. A technology designed to help homosexual couples and radical feminists have wombless babies may come into the service of conservatives (who oppose homosexual “marriage” and feminist values) as a means of ending abortion.

Cutting the other way, it is the technology of stem cell research and cloning (which many right to life conservatives want to outlaw) that may be needed to develop a technology that could be used to effectively legally end abortion, thus creating for such conservatives the moral dilemma of supporting the use of what they judge to be unethical or immoral technologies to end the greatest slaughter of the innocent (millions of abortions a year).

These emerging technologies give academic ethicists (as well as the rest of us amateur ethicists) plenty to think about. Remember, in Aldous Huxley’s disturbingly prescient Brave New World, the normal people were genetically cloned and gestated in artificial wombs, while the savages living in remote locations were the only ones who still naturally conceived, carried their own babies and then breast-fed them. The “normal” cloned people thought the natural people were animals to procreate naturally. As it always has in history, the definition of normal is subject to unexpected and seemingly abnormal change.

And it would seem that advancing medical and genetic technologies will benefit conservatives and liberals in a promiscuous manner.

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