A new medical device may change almost everything we think about making babies. It may also sweep away the current controversy over abortion while creating new ethical dilemmas. We speak of the artificial womb.
Also called a biobag, an artificial womb is a big plastic sack filled with synthetic amniotic fluid. A tube going into the bag supplies the fluid, and another tube drains it.
Artificial wombs have been used to bring lambs to full term outside the mama sheep's belly. It's just a matter of time before the artificial womb is ready to gestate a human fetus.
The biobag's developers say their only goal is to help premature babies thrive. Instead of using mechanical ventilation and other equipment to salvage those born much too early, nurses in neonatal units could put the premature babies in bags mimicking the pre-birth environment. That would allow the baby to continue developing as peacefully as it would in its mother's womb. Biobags could also save extremely premature babies from dying or suffering brain damage, lung disease and other serious conditions.
You see where this could go. It could go to ectogenesis. A fixture of science fiction, ectogenesis is the growing of an embryo or fetus outside the mother's body. The 1999 movie "The Matrix" featured a network of biobags with fetuses growing inside.
Right now, scientists are able to nurture embryos conceived through in vitro fertilization for almost 14 days. Two weeks is the voluntary limit placed on human embryonic research because that is when the "primitive streak" — a forerunner of the nervous system — appears. There are new calls to extend the cutoff to 28 weeks.
It's inevitable. Embryos grown in dishes will eventually be put into biobags. Baby made, uterus not required.
What does this mean for society? Where do we begin? Women would be spared the pain, physical risks and economic losses of child bearing. Gay men — or anyone, really — could have children without securing the services of a female's womb.
The abortion debate would change radically. For example, a state could require that women having abortions transfer the fetus to an artificial womb. The woman could keep the resulting baby or let someone adopt it. Such a system, one imagines, would lead to a large supply of adoptable infants, perhaps more than there are parents for.
What are the possible objections to replacing the human womb with extrauterine devices? Many may find the idea distasteful and unnatural. They may argue that removing the physical tie between mother and baby could undermine their emotional bond. (Others would counter that fathers and adoptive parents connect just as closely with their children.) Some say a developing fetus needs to hear the heartbeat and voice of the mother, but those sounds could be reproduced and provided.
The subject of what happens to embryos often produces emotional responses. Consider the debate over using embryos for embryonic stem cell research. (Never mind that IVF clinics routinely discard thousands of unused embryos.)
Scientists can already manipulate genes to make "designer babies." Soon they will be able to gestate them in biobags. Any number of startling scenarios arise.
Humans wanting large numbers of children via one partner are currently constrained by the fact that women usually bear only one child at a time. What would stop rich people from paying for a roomful of artificial wombs producing, say, 20 children at once? Laws would — or could.
Before laws can be made, though, societies will have to decide what may be ethically done. And societies will disagree.
O brave new world. Biotech is creating it faster than our imaginations can travel.
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