Department of Bioethics and Health Humanities
Special Guest Lecture
The Elephant in the Womb: A Bioethics
Blueprint for De-extinction using Ectogestation
Friday, March 24, 2023
Richard B. Gibson, PhD, FHEA
Dept. of Bioethics & Health Humanities
School of Public and Population Health
Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, PhD, FHEA
Department of Biolaw
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The Mammoth is often considered the poster child for de-extinction – the process of resurrecting extinct species. This perspective technology, however, comes with tremendous bioethical baggage. Unfortunately, much of the ethical discourse around de-extinction focuses on the potential for unintended environmental harms and anxieties about ‘playing God.’ While undoubtedly significant, the focus on these grandiose concerns has come at the expense of exploring de-extinction’s more practical issues. One critical oversight concerns the gestational location of the prospective Mammoth; where will these animals develop from fertilised eggs to fully formed calfs? Many researchers suggest that African elephants can satisfy such gestational requirements, given their proximity to Mammoth biology. However, the risks inherent in elephant pregnancy are already substantial, and adding the uncertainties of cross-species gestation will likely compound such dangers, endangering both surrogate and gestating Mammoth. As an alternative, some have tentatively suggested ectogestation – using artifice to gestate organisms. According to such suggestions, an artificial placenta would undertake the gestational labour rather than developing a Mammoth within an elephant. However, such a proposal’s ethical complexities are unconsidered, and it is an elucidation of such issues to which this paper turns its gaze. It starts by giving an account of the science underpinning de-extinction and, specifically, an overview of how you go from a genetic blueprint to a fully formed Mammoth. The paper then explores ectogestation in two parts: partial and complete. It concludes by arguing that while the former is more realisable than the latter, it is more ethically fraught.