Alabama’s Unusual Embryo Ruling Vs. Artificial Wombs

In a ruling given by Justice Jay Mitchell, the notion within the defense’s argument that a baby nurtured to full gestation within an artificial womb might not be considered a human, due to not being carried in utero, was significantly challenged. The current ruling makes it clear that the wrongful-death act pertains to all unborn children irrespective of their location or age, and that there are no exceptions for embryos, even those in cryogenic storage for prolonged periods. This effectively extends to all forms of “extrauterine children” that scientific progression may make possible.

Ordinarily, legal experts have to grapple with intricate questions as they attempt to reconcile antiquated laws with emerging technology. However, this particular decision is anomalous due to the adjudication on a technology that is yet to be fully realized. Susan Wolf, who is an expert in law and medicine at the University of Minnesota, remarks on the uniqueness of this case, one where a judgment has been made based on technology that does not yet exist in the human domain and has not even been presented throughout the court proceedings.

Despite the legal implications, the issue the Alabama justices passed judgment on may soon be a tangible one. There are several organizations currently focusing their efforts on the invention of artificial wombs to sustain preterm babies, while other research facilities are utilizing fluid-filled bottles to nurture mouse embryos to the point of cardiac activity. An Israeli startup, Renewal Bio, has even expressed its intentions to grow synthetic human embryos (stem cell-created) to around 40 days of age and older for the purposes of tissue collection for transplant medicine.

With the rapid advancement in technological development, the debate surrounding the legal and ethical entitlements of incubated human fetuses may become a practical concern rather than just theoretical. There are multiple potential conflicts that medical professionals and attorneys may have to face. These range from the legality of terminating incubated fetus’ life support under states that champion pro-choice legislation based on the provisions for pregnant individuals, to whether a fetus created only for organ harvest and devoid of sentience can be classified as a child under Alabama law.