How CRISPR and Artificial Wombs Might Change Our Lives: A Fireside Chat

Our group of engineers, designers, and reproductive scientists contemplate a future when humans are engineered.

Inna Ulanova
Sep 24, 2018 · 10 min read

In this edition of DxFutures, we explored the implications of genetic engineering and artificial wombs on society in a room filled with leading biomedical engineers, scientists, and designers. We talked about birth, life, love and death — the full human cycle, in the context of a Gattaca or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, if artificial wombs were to become commonplace.

It took us a step into a dystopian novel, like Huxley’s Brave New World, to step out with a better idea of what we actually want for humanity in our future.

Alexandra reads Lotus Life to a captivated audience

The fireside started with a live Sci Fi reading by Alexandra Whittington, a Futurist and the author of Lotus Life, a story about a girl’s exploration into the newfound artificial womb forefront both as it settles into society and finds its way into the personal relation of her own life. Our protagonist questions if the advent of artificial childbearing would give birth a new culture, and this was the thesis and focus for our fireside panel discussion.

During the fireside, we addressed three main topics:

  1. The future of birth and artificial wombs will impact what it means to be a woman in society.
  2. Since CRISPR has hit the scene, genetic engineering is more specific, costs less and is much faster.
  3. Artificial wombs can create future culture wars and influence the pro-life/pro-choice schism.
A moment of zen and short mindfulness exercise before the live reading of Lotus Life

The energy of the room was brimmed with excitement and curiosity, as we discussed how new technological advancements could change the future of reproduction. As a result, we were left with many great insights, weighing in on the pros and cons (with surprisingly many tie-ins to dystopian novel settings) of what artificial wombs could mean for our collective future. To note, it made us feel content knowing that the skepticism in the room was for the common good. We all want a healthier, conscientious and equal world.

Here are some of the questions and key takeaways we discussed with guests and panelists:

Let’s take a deeper dive into how our discussion unraveled.

Discussion led by our panelists Dr. Sophia Yen, Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Stanford Medical School; Alexandra Whittington, Foresight Director at Fast Future publishing; Matt Bell, Design Partner at DxLabs and Crystal Cassidy, VP of Operations at Net32.

1. The future of birth and artificial wombs will impact what it means to be a woman in society.

Artificial wombs (‘Biobags’), and the realization of ecogenesis, is a technology that is well under way. Artificial wombs are entirely external and separate, providing an environment for growth of the fetus and embryo. These devices are considered an assisted reproductive technology because they are being developed as a means to provide more fertility options as well as improve premature baby survival.

The image of a child growing in an artificial environment, outside of the womb of its’ mother, no longer eating her food through the gut and diffusing it through the umbilicus and placenta is a mind-blowing concept. How does this change a woman’s roles in society? Would an artificial womb free women from “the tyranny of their reproductive biology?”

Arathi Prasad argues in her column on The Guardian in her article “How artificial wombs will change our ideas of gender, family and equality” that artificial wombs “will give men an essential tool to have a child entirely without a woman, should they choose. It will ask us to question concepts of gender and parenthood.”

Prasad furthermore argues for the benefits for same-sex couples that this “might also mean that the divide between mother and father can be dispensed with: a womb outside a woman’s body would serve women, trans women and male same-sex couples equally without prejudice.”

  • What do you think would be the societal impacts of artificial wombs on what it means to be a female?
  • Can you imagine having a child outside of your uterus as a female?
  • What do you think would be the legal and political implications of a birth that is no longer tied to the female body?

Our audience saw both pros and cons on the topic of artificial wombs. Although this provides more fertility options to many, the reality of the technology as it stands today is not developed enough or advanced to truly understand the nature and outcome of baby survival let alone the long-term health of the child. But since it is becoming an area of development and research, we cannot deny that the changing role of the female is definite.

Think it won’t see the light of day? Think again. In 2016, in the United States, an estimated 76,930 babies were born via assisted reproductive technologies. The vast majority of those babies were born via IVF and over the past decade, assisted reproductive technology birth rates have doubled over the past decade, the CDC estimates. “Today, about 1.7 percent of all babies born in the United States each year are conceived via the technology. Worldwide, millions of babies have been born with IVF.” It’s kind of both scary, but exciting.

Our panelist, Dr. Sophia Yen, Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Stanford Medical School commented: “From the feminist point of the view, I think the artificial womb is amazing…There is the controlling and policing of woman lives — you can’t drink, you can’t smoke, you can’t do anything. Well how about we put it here and give it the optimal food and no longer have any of that guilt.”

2. Since CRISPR has hit the scene, genetic engineering is more specific, costs less and is much faster.

For these reasons, the discussion on how the human species will choose to interact with this power must also go deeper and faster.

So what is CRISPR? Good question. The technology, referred to generally as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeat) systems, is a biological tool derived from a microbial adaptive immune response. The panel noted that while the technology is exciting and is already being used in a variety of settings (bio-fuel, disease treatments, disease eradication, agriculture), there are multiple studies coming out that cast doubt on whether we fully understand the effects of CRISPR related genetic editing and if the specificity is really where it needs to be.

Our moderator, Crystal Cassidy, clarifies: “So it’s kind of like taking a mug shot of a viral DNA. If the bacteria sees that viral DNA again, it can respond more effectively. So[when scientists] looked at that system, they figured out that they can use the CRISPR-Cas9 system model in human cells as well…and now we have laser sight accuracy where we want to edit our genes.”

We’ve seen the development and initial resistance to things like In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and pre-birth genetic testing, and although CRISPR is becoming more and more democratized, many countries currently ban or discourage germline gene modifications. Our panel wondered whether this initial fear and backlash for CRISPR was a similar historical fear tied to IVF. Some concluded that somatic genetic alterations will become more and more commonplace whereas germline alternations will likely be more closely watched by the scientific community, bio-ethical bodies and governments… or banned all-together.

Somatic alternations include those made in any of the body’s cells like skin, muscle and blood cells and are not inherited by future generations, whereas germline alterations are those made to gametes (sperm, egg). Currently, germline modifications are banned or discouraged in many countries. The reasons seem to center on concerns around 1.) irreversible damage to the genome, 2.) non-consenting future generations impacted, and 3.) societal inequalities heightened.

We’ve been ‘engineering’ plants, animals and yes, human lives, around us for thousands of years through some sort of direct or indirect selection. There are many potential types of germline modifications you could make in a human such as for increased survivability in other climates (i.e. humans tolerant of increased heat.) The room agreed that they would remove Huntington's disease and heart disease mutations from their children if they could. Some noted that there were additional challenges to be had in tackling something as complex and multi-faceted as heart disease (not just one gene to target) and this was preventative, not necessarily detrimental to future generations. For increasing intelligence, a neuroscientist in the room commented that she could not opt for this modification at this time because we do not yet have a firm grasp on what defines intelligence to start with. Jumping straight to engineering for intelligence without first understanding the complexities of such a trait seemed unwise.

In asking the question if there was a perfect genome that could be created — no one could entirely agree.

There may likely be a moment once we all understand and have addressed the low hanging fruit of eradicating debilitating diseases, but what about what comes next? The panel spoke to the potential path that humanity may go down where the access to genetic engineering could (relatively easily) lead to an entire other species emerging. Evolution may be shaped and forced in a unnatural direction leaving some to face possible extinction who get left behind. There were ominous tones in the discussion as we started to collectively feel the power that came with programming the genome, and whether humans were ready, or could ever be ready, to take on playing with creation so explicitly.*

  • What do you think can balance our approach to genetic modifications, considering both productive enhancements as well as the imperfections that make us human?

All the more reason for these ideas, concerns and developments to be discussed now and in earnest.

*Insights on CRISPR provided by Crystal Cassidy

3. Artificial wombs can potentially create future culture wars.

The best way to intro and close this final insight is a quote from our Author of Lotus Life, Alexandra Whittington, and Matt Bell’s comment to follow.

Alexandra: “Today’s pro-choice, pro-life culture wars are nothing compared to the culture wars that will probably occur if we have this kind of technology as commonplace as the choices we have now ranging from celibacy to birth control. [Artificial wombs] expand our options for reproduction. So if it becomes a consumer choice… it’s beyond IVF, it’s beyond abortion, it’s a thing that you can buy and it commercializes the whole relationship.”

Matt: “So if a billionaire decides to buy a whole lab of these artificial wombs and would want to clone himself, that’d be a problem.”

Just as we are seeing surrogacy as a service and essentially a commercial product that is being ‘bought’ — the implications of artificial wombs could impact our relationship to childbearing entirely as we move forward into the next wave of redefining human purpose in the new technologies and realities we are consciously choosing to build and manifest.

It’s our job to stay consciously aware of the process and discuss the implications of technology while they are being developed, collectively as a society. What are your thoughts?

  • Will there be a discrimination perspective of natural births vs artificial?
  • How will cost play a role in accessibility?

Fears and Hopes:

We asked our guests to post their fears, hopes and questions on Artificial Wombs & CRISPR on the entrance board. Here was their take.

We’re interested to hear yours and continue the discussion here.

Hopes for Artificial Wombs:

  • No birth complications
  • Lower child mortality
  • A larger portion of society with strong immune systems
  • Ability to prevent ailments or conditions
  • More accessibility
  • Implications are thought through
  • Females will achieve equality
Artificial Womb Hopes

Fears on Artificial Wombs:

  • Gattaca
  • Too much uniformity
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
  • No abortion but forced birthing
  • More babies
  • Negative cascading effect on descendants
  • Epigenetics fueled by historic xenophobia
  • Creation of ethnostates
  • “Superior” vs. “Inferior”
  • Bias on what’s considered “beautiful” or “healthy”
  • Bias on appearances
Artificial Womb Fears

Our attendee’s questions about CRISPR:

  • Who decides what is okay and what is not?
  • Mad Max Trans-humanism?
  • Fidelity? Chance of errors?
  • How does CRISPR consider the future?
  • What will reproductive rights look like in a wealth gap broadened by technology?
  • Where do we draw the line of “healing a disease” and improving something that should be normal?
  • What does this mean for people who conceive by intercourse? Would it increase/decrease legal enforcement in private couple lives?
Questions about CRISPR

What do you think?

Access the google document here to participate in on an online discussion.

  • What would you say are the top two next steps needed for artificial wombs to move closer to a positive global impact on society?
  • How could we mess up this adoption?
  • What are your worst fears and biggest hopes related to this adoption?

Join our community of Futurists

Thank you to all our guests! What a wonderful gathering of minds. A special thank you to Dr. Sophia Yen for participating in our panel and keeping the room upbeat and inspired as we explored the future of birth and state-of-the-art genetic engineering. We look forward to having you all at our next fireside.

DxFutures is a publication of illustrated sci-fi short stories written by designers, artists, entrepreneurs and futurists to explore the social impact of technology in our society. Read the stories.

Our guests write their hopes, fears and questions
DxLab CEO, Lance Cassidy, walks our audience through the fireside agenda
Alexandra Whittington dives into our Artificial Womb VR Experience, created by Matt Bell
Not your regular audience — great discussion and inspirational energy
Alexandra‘s live reading of Lotus Life
It was a great event. Thank you to our panel and guests!

We collaborate with entrepreneurs, artists, designers, futurists — the people actively creating the future — to explore the social impact of technology on our future. Comment below and join our Futures community.

If you’re interested in opportunities for collaboration or DxLab Futurecasting, shoot me an e-mail with the subject “Let’s jam” to:

I look forward to connecting with you!

Thanks to Matthew Thomas Bell, Lance Cassidy, and Crystal Cassidy

Inna Ulanova

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Free bird robot techie dame. Strategy. Rick & Morty. Bear hugs. Neuroscience. Human-centered design thinking.

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