Bryan Caplan  

Pregnancy Substitutes and Economic Growth

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In the U.S., the all-inclusive cost of a surrogate pregnancy (including the surrogate's fee, in vitro costs, medical expenses, brokers' fees, etc.) is $75,000+.  But you can save a bundle by going to India, the growing world capital of fertility tourism.  With the Indian economy growing by leaps and bounds, however, its comparative advantage in unpleasant, labor-intensive services won't last forever.  From Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, chapter 7 ("Life-Giving Technology: What It Means for You"):
Fertility tourism has a bright future for the next couple of decades.  But how many cheap surrogates will be on the market after countries like India join the developed world?  In fifty years, perhaps our daughters will tell our granddaughters, "Back in my day, we outsourced our pregnancies to India," and the granddaughters will impatiently reply, "Mom, outsourcing just isn't affordable anymore!" 

Surrogacy is an amazing advance, but it redistributes pregnancy rather than eliminating it.  The only long-term global solution to the burden of pregnancy is the creation - and mass production - of artificial wombs.

Sci-fi?  Probably not.  While writing this chapter, I learned about the amazing experiments of Cornell's Hung-Ching Liu:
Liu's artificial womb is a surprisingly simple construction. She created it after researching the making of artificial skin and adapting those methods. First she and her co-workers mold a base, a womb-shaped matrix of collagen and chondroitin, substances that are biodegradable. Over time, they dissolve, leaving only the endometrial tissue that is placed over the matrix. Each womb is shaped like a section of the mammalian version it mimics: The artificial human mold is bowl-shaped; the faux mouse womb is a doughnut-shaped section of a mouse's tubular uterus.

In the beginning, Liu used endometrial cells donated by some of the clinic's female patients to grow human tissue. Then she added human embryos left over from IVF treatments, donated by other patients. These zygotes implanted and started to grow. But after they had gestated for 10 days, Liu ended the experiments, well short of viability. Under current federal regulations, two weeks is the limit for human fetal growth in the lab. "So we switched to an animal model," Liu says with a shrug. In 2002 she and her colleagues started making mouse wombs and growing mouse embryos inside them.
Liu almost got a mouse embryo to term in 2003.  Since then, this research has been discontinued, but the main problem seems to be regulation and public hostility, not intrinsic difficulty.  Once a generation of Western women get used to pregnancy-free babies, can the artificial womb be far behind?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Prakhar Goel writes:

Then, here is another scenario which probably sounds like sci-fi but maybe not!

Artificial wombs come into vogue. Most humans loose their ability to reproduce without technological assistance and then some catastrophic disaster wipes out most of the artificial wombs. There goes the race.

Note that the market will not correct for this failure: it is a typical prisoner's dilemma.

jake writes:

if artificial womb is perfected, what stops some evil dictator to create a race of clones to form a gigantic military and take over the world? seriously.

Ben writes:

Would the dictator have to kill off all the knights of the republic first?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

It's not the artificial womb that concerns me, it is the probability of "state-commissioned babies" that would be wards of the state right from the start.

A low birth rate is a genuine national security threat. Once the artificial womb has birthed a generation of kids for families, there would be no resistance to "state babies" mandated to make up a low birth rate. For the good of the country, of course.

Even without state-commissioned babies, statists have done a remarkable job of indoctrinating the young.

guthrie writes:

If my wife could give birth without having to use her own uterus she would jump at that chance! In addition to infertility, artificial wombs have the added benefit of not being as dangerous for the mother than natural child birth.

Jake, your scenario would be chilling, if the clones grew up rapidly, cost nothing to maintain (food, clothing, education), and possessed no will or individual identity of their own. Seems to me that it's far easier, faster, and cheaper to convince (or coerce) a mass of adults than try to grow a crop from 'scratch' as it were. Ditto to Jeremy... look at your last line! Why would they mess with what works?

Prakhar's idea is more plausible, but I'm skeptical that artificial wombs would become so in vogue that a majority of women would opt out of natural child birth. Plus that disaster would have to be so widespread that humanity in general would be in danger regardless.

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