Making babies in the lab: the morality of reproductive technologies

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Forty-five years since the first ‘test-tube’ baby was born through in vitro fertilisation (IVF), the world of reproductive technologies is almost unrecognisable. New screening opportunities and better understanding of genomics has meant that the creation and selection of embryos has become more precise – offering a somewhat more certain process than the gamble of natural conception.

But while many who have experienced fertility issues might cheer new advancements in reproductive technology – IVF is now a routine treatment – others have concerns. Earlier this year, surgeons performed the first womb transplant on a woman in the UK, potentially allowing infertile women to be able to carry their own children. While some hail this a medical breakthrough, others have pointed to the problem of prioritising ‘gestational parenting’ over all else, with some medical professionals arguing that transgender women might be able to get pregnant with a donated womb.

It doesn’t stop there. Scientists have recently generated what some have called ‘embryo-like’ structures from stem cells, even implanting them in monkeys to model early pregnancy. While some have called these ‘synthetic embryos’, the International Society for Stem Cell Research has stressed that these ‘embryo models’ are just that – models. While these ‘can replicate aspects of the early-stage development of human embryos, they cannot and will not develop to the equivalent of postnatal stage humans’, the ISSCR warns. For some, this research provides vital insights into early pregnancy, and could provide information to prevent or lessen defects or even miscarriages. For others, this is a step too far in the direction of playing God.

Should we draw a line when it comes to meddling with baby making? What ethical implications arise from scientists attempting to artificially create life – or even mimic it? By medicalising conception, do we lose something of its magic? In her 1914 poem ‘Parturition’, the poet Mina Loy wrote of the process of pregnancy and childbirth as each new mother becoming a ‘woman of the people’ wearing a ‘ludicrous little halo / Of which she is sublimely unaware’. Does the advent of a reproductive technology-boom – with everything from egg-freezing to womb transplants – deepen our appreciation of the miracle of childbirth, or mess with our halos? Is this a medical no-brainer – taking the mystique out of making babies meaning less heartache and more certainty for couples who want to become parents? Or is there something to be said for leaving some things up to mother nature?

Dr Mehmet Çiftçi
public bioethics fellow, Anscombe Bioethics Centre

Nicky Drury
genetic counsellor, Nottingham Department of Clinical Genetics; former member, United Kingdom Human Genetics Commission

Ann Furedi
author, The Moral Case for Abortion; former chief executive, BPAS

Dr Günes Taylor
research scientist; public speaker

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want