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New Technology Could Let Women Terminate Pregnancy Without Killing the Baby

A technological breakthrough could enable a baby to develop in an artificial womb, allowing a mother to avoid abortion while saving the baby's life. This would undercut the legal justification for abortion in Roe v. Wade, creating a fascinating legal dilemma. A bioethicist at Harvard University warned that it would undercut a woman's "right to an abortion."

"It could wind up being that you only have the right to an abortion up until you can put [a fetus] in the artificial womb," I. Glenn Cohen, a bioethicist at Harvard Law School, told Gizmodo. "It's terrifying."

Cohen published a report Friday discussing the legal ramifications of a major breakthrough scientists had in April. A research team led by Alan Flake from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia successfully incubated eight premature baby lambs in an external womb resembling a high-tech ziplock bag. By April, the oldest lamb was nearly a year old and still seemed to be developing naturally.

It may take between five years and a decade before such technology can be used on premature human infants, but the results suggested that it could indeed keep premature babies alive before birth. If the technology becomes reliable and cheap enough, it could become a kind of substitute for abortion.

Gizmodo's Kristen Brown explained that this technology could save the lives of the 30,000 or so babies each year born earlier than 26 weeks into pregnancy. But it could also complicate "and even jeopardize" the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that women have a right to an abortion before their baby reaches the point of viability.

"The Supreme Court has pegged the constitutional treatment of abortion to the viability of a fetus," Cohen explained. "This has the potential to really disrupt things, first by asking the question of whether a fetus could be considered 'viable' at the time of abortion if you could place it in an artificial womb."

In other words, if a woman decided to get an abortion to avoid carrying the child to term, she wouldn't have to kill the fetus — the fetus could be removed and placed in an artificial womb to develop fully. This would save a life, and it would redefine the legal setting behind abortion.

Viability has already changed in the past few decades. A normal human pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. In 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal, the Court defined viability as a fetus's ability to live outside of the womb. At the time, the Court said viability typically began at some point during the third trimester, which begins at 24 weeks.

In 1992, the Court reaffirmed viability as key to restricting a state's power to regulate abortion. Today, viability ranges between 22 and 24 weeks by state, but no state can enforce a ban on abortion at any stage of development if a woman's health is at risk.