EctoLife: A Cautionary Tale

January 27, 2023 • Posted in Blog


Joyce A. Shelton, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology Emerita
Trinity International University

In the December 2022 TN-CBC newsletter article entitled Déjà vu all over again, D. Joy Riley drew our attention to the parallels between the recently released YouTube video EctoLife: The world’s first artificial womb facility, and the fake publicity for the movie GATTACA 25 years ago. The new video, while actually conceptual, presents ectogenesis, the complete development of a baby in an artificial womb, as a current reality. Once again, a number of viewers were fooled. Unfortunately, it is perhaps more realistic than we dare to think. In a revealing interview by Beau Davidson with the Ectolife video producer, Hashem Al-Ghaili, Al-Ghaili acknowledges that his purpose in producing the video was to show us the potential future of this technology in an intriguing way and generate the conversations necessary to move the concept forward. He claims, though, that the “concept” of ectogenesis is not science fiction, that all the technology mentioned in the video is available and all he did was to bring it together. His prediction is that, given the global decrease in birth rates, the desire of women to put off their pregnancies in favor of their careers, and the increasing number of women who cannot carry their own child for medical or other reasons, ectogenesis may become a necessity-driven reality in 10 years or, more likely, less.

I encourage my research ethics students (not all of whom are would-be scientists) to analyze frontier research like ectogenesis by asking, what are the promises, the perils, the ethical principles that apply, and the boundaries that need to be set to assure that the research can proceed ethically? Al-Ghaili does not like the idea of considering the first babies generated through this technology as research “test subjects”, but make no mistake, they will be and, as vulnerable human subjects, they deserve protection. When questioned about the ethical issues, Al-Ghaili makes several troubling assertions. He claims that the real barrier is societal acceptance. Currently there are protective laws that prevent human embryos from being developed to term for research purposes. These laws, he says, are already being relaxed. Need, regardless of resistance, drives acceptance, and with increasing acceptance, as we have seen with IVF, the ethical concerns will dissolve. He also argues that all the ethical concerns cannot be known until after the technology and process is in place. He asserts that the technology should not be hindered by ethical concerns, that we cannot judge it based on our fears. “How will we know if we don’t try?” This approach to ethical analysis is disturbing to say the least.

Ectogenesis of babies from embryo to full term, with all of its unsettling implications, seems to be the ultimate goal of Al-Ghaili and others. Its true promise, however, may lie in its potential to support the life of premature babies. Babies born before the 20th week of pregnancy do not survive, but beyond that survival rates have steadily improved over time. A recent study showed that 55% of babies born as early as 23 weeks, can survive with active treatment. Medical interventions are advancing, but are, nevertheless, still inadequate in their support of developmental deficiencies in preemies, especially lung development, which can lead to long term disabilities. The future application of ectogenesis technologies to neonatal care, which admittedly has its own ethical and technical concerns, could expand the percentage of viability for premature infants while also addressing developmental support limitations.

Does the promise of this technology outweigh the perils, which are numerous (see Riley;
Davidson)? Can boundaries be drawn that will guide the research and address the ethical concerns? While these questions have not yet been adequately answered, the hyper-sensationalized video, EctoLife, has, at the very least, made us consider the consequences in advance and, hopefully, proceed with caution. Encouragingly, while a few of the video viewers were openly intrigued, many reacted with natural horror to the idea of manufacturing human beings and all that could mean for the devaluing of human life and the potential for exploitation. Even Al-Ghaili eventually admitted the need for an international ethical body to oversee the development of the technology going forward. For the sake of our future children, we can hope.


The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture encourages respectful discussion and debate of bioethics issues, and strongly supports freedom of speech. To that end, we invite and welcome other voices to the discussion of bioethics issues. Invited authors’ views are their own, and do not necessarily represent those of The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture.