Following researchers’ success testing artificial wombs with lambs and pigs, the FDA has begun discussing the possibility of human trials for severely premature infants. This technology has the life-saving potential to revolutionize neonatal care. Thinkers like Christopher Kaczor have suggested that artificial wombs could eliminate the perceived need for abortion. Others insist that this new technology has more potential to undermine human dignity than to affirm it.

The FDA insists that the technology will be used only to rescue premature infants (for now). But interest in artificial wombs as an alternative to surrogacy is growing, as sci-fi films like The Pod Generation and viral sensationEctoLife take the concept of artificial wombs to its logical ends, imagining the possibility of commercial baby factories and their impact on human communities. Nearly a hundred years since Aldous Huxley imagined a brave new world in which the family had become obsolete and human reproduction relegated to the laboratory, we are approaching the technical capacity to make his dystopia a reality. What will happen to our society if we abandon human procreation for mechanical “reproduction,” including “birth at the touch of a button,” as EctoLife’s marketing tagline promotes?

Mechanical Mothers

While these speculations take the form of science fiction, there is much real-world scientific evidence on which to ground cautionary implementation of this technology.* Can we hope to replicate the effects of a maternal womb with a mechanical substitute? If so, do we still have reason to be cautious?

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We have good reason to doubt the idea that any substitute mechanism can approximate the conditions of the maternal womb to a satisfactory degree. We have not even been able to identify all the substances in breast milk, or formulate a substitute that comes close to its nutritional value (let alone its bonding effects). It seems hubristic to think we could substitute for a mother’s womb all the intricate facets vital to the development of a new human person. 

With so much awareness of the potential harms of external substances introduced into the prenatal environment—from nicotine and alcohol to retinol to any number of prescription medications classified as unsafe during pregnancy—it is puzzling that so little is said about the potential absence of critical factors in development with regard to artificial wombs. This may be because, without testing, the magnitude of those effects is largely unknown, and research that could test such variables would be unethical.

As researchers gain awareness of what is necessary to sustain a pregnancy, doctors can prescribe what might otherwise be deficient to prevent pregnancy loss. This is why all pregnant women are advised to take a supplement containing folic acid, and why an obstetrician might prescribe progesterone to a woman who has had multiple miscarriages. When these substances are absent, the body cannot sustain pregnancy. These are just two examples of what is minimally required to sustain life; it is a mark of our pride to believe that we are capable of determining and artificially supplying every factor that is necessary for optimal development. 

We do know that the epigenetic environment of the maternal womb has widespread effects on the developing fetus that continue to influence the child for years to come. The number of words read aloud has neurological effects that increase a child’s future capacity for reading. The foods a mother eats influence her growing baby’s future tastes. Months of being physically enveloped in the vibrations of her speaking allow the newborn baby to recognize his own mother’s voice.

Perhaps those factors seem like arguments in favor of artificial wombs. As EctoLife and The Pod Generation suggest, the clinical setting of a laboratory lends itself to a much greater degree of control. Where a mother might be exposed to any number of environmental toxins, a closely regulated “pod” can not only be protected from such toxins but also be given precise doses of what may be lacking in even an ideal maternal womb, subject to nutritional shortages, hormonal fluctuations, and any number of unknown variables.

Such reflections presuppose a firm grasp on all relevant needs for fetal development as well as the possibility of delivering them better or at least as well as the female body. Such knowledge is difficult to ascertain and unethical to test: randomly assigning babies to be extracted from maternal wombs to assess the potential harms of growing them in mechanical alternatives would violate scientific regulations protecting vulnerable preborn persons from exactly these types of harms. 

Reproachable Research

The 1976 Belmont Report, published by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, established strict guidelines for the protection of children as a vulnerable population in biomedical research. Infants and developing babies in utero, as creatures utterly unable to consent to any type of experimentation, are even more stringently protected. In fact, part of the reason women are underrepresented in medical research, and fertile women even more so, is that in an effort to protect potential persons who might be conceived from possible side effects of the drugs being studied, menstruating and breastfeeding women are nearly always excluded from medical research. To assign any number of infants to be grown in an artificial womb for research purposes would be unthinkable by today’s research standards—though such research may be permissible when conducted for therapeutic purposes on children whose lives might be saved by this technology due to a mother’s death or illness that prevents her from carrying on the pregnancy. 

While factors like nutrition and temperature might be more efficiently managed via an artificial environment, there is at least one factor that mechanical substitutes will never be able to effectively mimic: the maternal touch. The effects of maternal touch on the health and development of premature infants and newborns can hardly be overstated—nor can the horrific consequences of their absence.

We have good evidence from studies and sociological conditions prior to the implementation of our contemporary research standards that attests to the irreplaceable role of maternal touch in childhood development. In the thirteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor King Frederick II carried out an experiment in which fifty infants were bathed and fed but otherwise deprived of touch and speech. All fifty infants died. In developmental psychology, the term “the forbidden experiment” refers to hypothetical experimental designs that mimic King Frederick’s isolation experiment. Would not growing a fetus within a machine, entirely deprived of all prenatal maternal touch, be a most grievous extrapolation of these “forbidden experiments”? 

Observational studies reveal that, for older children, maternal deprivation significantly contributes to a number of attachment and social disorders. Research on adoptees and donor-conceived children reveals similar psychological effects of maternal (and parental) abandonment. These studies describe the detrimental psychological effects that occur on a social and emotional level when children are deprived of their parents. The unspoken assumption in arguments in favor of artificial wombs is that these types of wounds can only be experienced by a sentient being capable of realizing his abandonment. This assumption is not supported by the evidence; Rene Spitz’s 1952 study “Emotional Deprivation in Infancy,” among others on feral and isolated children, shows the tragic effects of touch and sensory deprivation in infants. 

The physical deprivation of his mother can have serious consequences on an infant, and the emotional loss of a parent creates primal wounds that persist into adulthood—even in cases when that parent is replaced by a loving substitute. How much more disastrous might these consequences prove for a developing fetus whose existence is entirely physically dependent on his mother? 

Even our best incubators for premature infants cannot substitute for parental touch at present; skin-to-skin kangaroo care” has been shown to reduce mortality rates, the length of hospital stays, severe illness, and infection, while improving attachment, cardiovascular and temperature regulation, and breastfeeding and neurodevelopmental outcomes. If we extrapolate from these effects to the vital role they play before birth, it becomes apparent that any attempt to substitute for maternal-fetal touch is likely to substantially worsen outcomes. Caregivers are not interchangeable, nor will mechanical substitutes ever be adequate substitutes for maternal love. 

The New Surrogacy

Once technologies are released into the wild of free-market capitalism, it can be difficult to corral their use. Developed ostensibly to help infertile couples build families, surrogacy is now a way for the wealthy to bypass legal and biological hurdles to obtaining children. Some high-profile women are choosing surrogacy not due to any biological impediment, but as a way to sidestep the physical burdens of pregnancy. Actress Jamie Chung revealed that she was “terrified” that pregnancy would interfere with her career; Paris Hilton has cited her traumatizing” fear of childbirth as the reason she paid another woman to experience it in her stead. The media and academics alike are already suggesting that IVF (expensive and ineffective as it is) may become the new normal in human reproduction.

As far-fetched as build-a-baby factories may seem to us now, once the technological capabilities are in place, how long would it really be before artificial wombs started seeming “the new normal”? How long before the media and ad campaigns begin to market them as the safe alternative to natural pregnancy? After all, mechanical wombs sidestep the ethical objections to surrogacy (at least insofar as feminists are concerned about the exploitation of women; those who object on behalf of the dignity of the child in question would probably still raise concerns). Paris Hilton and the Kardashians would have no need to rely on another woman to grow their babies; their assistants could manage that for them at the fertility facility.

As I argue in chapter ten of Reclaiming Motherhood from a Culture Gone Mad, using surrogacy to avoid pregnancy is poor preparation for parenthood. If you are “too busy” for pregnancy, when care for your child unfolds on autopilot thanks to the wonder of the human body, how will you make time to care for the host of physical and psychological needs of a child?

The Virtue of Self-Sacrifice

The growing trend among celebrities to avoid the suffering and inconvenience of pregnancy is just one symptom of our society’s pathological avoidance of self-sacrifice for our children. As Katy Faust and Stacy Manning argue in Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement, we are consistently placing adult desires above children’s needs through divorce, same-sex parenting, and reproductive technologies.

When a newborn nurses for comfort, naysayers negate the female superpowers of fortifying the immune system, comforting and regulating their baby, and even lulling them to a peaceful sleep by claiming the baby is “using” the mother as a pacifier. We have become so accustomed to the ease of artificiality that we fail to recognize the momentous power of the real. The unspoken bias against vulnerability is that when the physiological needs of children make demands on adults, even mothers have a right to discount those needs when they become overly burdensome.

While we may not be commissioning surrogates or reserving our baby pods just yet, these extreme examples are not the only way we seek to avoid parental duties in pursuit of our own comfort. Wealthy celebrities like Mikhaila Peterson employ so-called “newborn specialists” or “night nannies,” delegating parental responsibilities to the hired help. When we offload parenting to daycare, night nannies, and robot cribs that gyrate our shrieking infants into submission so we don’t have to lift an eyelid, we run from what may paradoxically be our best chance at learning to love selflessly.  

The Paradox of Love

Sociologist Erica Komisar argues that the mutual neurological and hormonal effects of the frequent and intensive care required during the first three years of life, and especially during infancy, act to create and cement the bond between mother and child. In other words, handing off these responsibilities to paid help is ultimately to surrender the biological mechanisms by which joy and love blossom.

The outpouring of generosity and selflessness is parental love; the act of parental sacrifice is its own reward. To refuse to suffer is to bar ourselves from the fullness of love. This is, in essence, the purpose of suffering, or at least how its redemption in our fallen world unfolds. As Pope St. John Paul II declared

suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a “civilization of love.” In this love the salvific meaning of suffering is completely accomplished and reaches its definitive dimension.  

And so we see that to embrace the suffering that is necessary for the sake of love is not masochism; it is a reconciling of oneself to reality, greeting it for the good that can be gleaned, even if for the time, one cannot make out what good that might be.

In the case of parenting, however, that good is abundantly clear. More clearly than perhaps in any other calling, we are privileged as parents to witness the fruits of our labor. We get to hear our baby’s giggles, watch with bated breath as she toddles away for the first time, applaud at her first piano recital, and melt every time she says, “I love you, Mommy.” Nowhere more than in parenting is St. Teresa of Calcutta’s wisdom evident: “The paradox of love is that when we love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

To embrace the suffering that is necessary for the sake of love is not masochism; it is a reconciling of oneself to reality, greeting it for the good that can be gleaned, even if for the time, one cannot make out what good that might be.


The nature of parental love calls us into self-gift, such that as women, our very bodies begin to reflexively nurture the life within before we even consciously realize our motherhood has begun. Enduring the trials of pregnancy and childbirth, the aches and pains, the sleepless nights, calls forth within us the spirit of motherhood that is both primal and habituated. Every small trial endured for the sake of one’s child contributes to the character of a mother who is both more virtuous and better prepared for parenthood because of those trials. 

When we reject suffering and seek to replace it with artificiality, we miss our invitation to submit to the conditions under which love flourishes. We also lose sight of the meaning and purpose of our existence, which is not to pursue our own comfort and convenience, but to love God and our neighbor, even when that involves sacrifice and hardship. And in the case of artificial wombs, we lose sight of the dignity and value of every human life, which is not a product to be manufactured, but a gift to be received, a responsibility to be nurtured, and a mystery to be loved.

[*]  It is necessary to distinguish the reflections I make here from reflections on a type of artificial incubator that may be used to sustain a prematurely born infant when the continuation of pregnancy is no longer physically viable. Though related, I address here the ethics of artificial wombs used as an alternative to natural pregnancy à la surrogacy. The former is governed by the ethics of rescue, which do not apply in the case of artificial wombs used to avoid otherwise uncomplicated pregnancies. 

Image by Simon Dannhauer and licensed via Adobe Stock.