Artificial Womb Technology: From Sci-Fi Concept to Future Reality

As controversial as it may sound, technology is promising to free women from pregnancy and childbirth in less than a decade.

The concept of an artificial womb is not new. It has surfaced hypothetically for almost a century. It has been predicted that this technology will be tremendously powerful, and capable of altering the structure of society in the future. 

 

Why an Artificial Womb?

An artificial womb is a chamber that can provide nutrients, hormones, and oxygen to nourish a fetus while also allowing the disposal of waste. It replicates the environment offered by a mother’s womb. The technology aims to help premature human babies to continue growing in an artificial uterus.

The technology is considered a huge milestone since premature birth (before 37 weeks) is the leading cause of mortality among newborns globally. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported, that an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm (before 37 completed weeks of gestation) each year, and this figure is rising. The report also revealed that complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of mortality among children under the age of five.

 

Inspirations for the Artificial Womb

Anatomists have been more interested in the natural mechanisms of fetal development ever since Leonardo Da Vinci portrayed the fetus in a cadaver’s womb in the early 16th century. However, since the early 20th century, the concept of ectogenesis has been accompanied by inspirations from scientific literature, novels, and movies.

Aldous Huxley, in his 1932 social science novel, Brave New World, depicted a futuristic world in which embryos are fertilized in test tubes and citizens are genetically modified. His novel projected a future world with a huge scientific advancement in the reproduction of society. Another source of inspiration was the 1999 sci-fi movie, The Matrix. The movie showed multiple artificial womb-like chambers filled with life-sustaining fluids and connected by tubes, allowing the development of humans within.

In 1881, a French obstetrician, Etienne Stephane Tarnier, introduced prototypes of infant incubators by building wooden boxes with a compartment for hot water with the aim of minimizing the mortality of premature babies. Even though his prototype was not very sophisticated, his incubator concept is still being used as a standard in neonatal care for premature infants.

In 1924, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, in his paper Daedalus, or, Science and the Future, proposed the concept of ectogenesis, which is the exterior growth of a fetus outside the womb. Haldane emphasized how this concept could bring about a profound social transformation. He believed that “freeing women from the necessity of pregnancy, sex, and reproduction would be a drastic change in the imbalance of power in society.” He also stated that “the biologist is the possessor of knowledge that is going to revolutionize human life.”

 

The Evolution of Artificial Womb Technology

Emanuel Greenberg received the first patent in 1955 for illustrating an artificial uterus. He tested his design on premature newborns in order to allow them to continue growing in his exterior chamber. However, his attempt didn’t get much attention at that time. However, in 1996, researchers at Tokyo University further experimented with his design by removing a goat fetus and re-immersing it in an Extrauterine Fetal Incubation System. It was successful.

In 2002, Dr. Hung Ching Liu of Cornell University developed an artificial womb that allows embryos to grow outside of the human body. However, the experiment was terminated after six days due to ethical laws. In 2017, the closest thing to an artificial womb was disclosed by a Philadelphia research team, the Biobag. This artificial womb system was able to mimic every aspect of natural fetal life. The Biobag, which is a fluidic incubator, proved effective in sustaining the life of a lamb fetus for a period of four weeks.

 

The Promising Benefits of the Artificial Womb

In 2019, the BBC reported that scientists in the Netherlands are on the verge of developing an artificial womb that could save the lives of premature babies within 10 years. Artificial womb designs are already being offered, with infant growing chambers embedded with sensors and artificial intelligence to allow real-time data collection regarding the health and growth progress of a fetus. The chambers are filled with all the essential nutrients: heat, hormones, and oxygen. This would allow babies to grow in a controlled environment with optimum nourishment and continuous monitoring of their growth.

Since it has the potential to avoid pregnancy, it would reduce the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth. As a result, the technology is expected to increase women’s life expectancy. In addition, it may be an ideal choice for women who do not want to go through the discomfort of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth.

Furthermore, women would no longer have to worry about not being able to have babies because of menopause since it would be possible to have babies in artificial wombs. Aside from that, women with uterine health conditions and dysfunctions would have the opportunity to have a baby. Women also wouldn’t have to leave their jobs because of a natural nine-month pregnancy. They can just keep on working while their babies grow in a safer chamber.

It may also allow people to have more children. Especially for individuals who are financially secure, having as many kids as they want would not be a terrible thing. More importantly, nations with low birth rates would have the opportunity to enhance their birth rates in order to ensure a future generation.

 

Future Concerns

Many are already concerned about technology because it has the potential to abolish the institution of marriage. For some people, the entire purpose of marriage is to have babies and raise a family. Many say that if the prospect of producing babies in a natural way was taken out of the picture, there wouldn’t be any reason for marriage to exist.

Another source of concern is the possibility of a lack of attachment that was supposed to occur between newborns and their mothers. Fetuses that would grow inside plastic chambers might not be able to have the same level of bond with their mothers as compared to babies that grow inside the natural womb.

Furthermore, since there would be no need for the existence of parents, ethical professionals are concerned that the technology could allow several giant corporations and governmental institutions to use this opportunity to mass-produce parentless babies for their own institutional agenda.

From the legal point of view, experts are concerned about how babies who are in artificial wombs should be regarded legally. In 2018 a medical ethico-legal specialist, Elizabeth Chloe Romanis suggested that the human fetus inside an artificial womb is neither a fetus nor a baby. Instead, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding she suggested the term ‘Gestateling’ to be adopted. She also recommended the articulation of pertinent ethical issues for future practices.

 

Even though the artificial womb technology is raising ethical and social concerns about the future of baby-making, scientists are assuring the world that, as crazy as it sounds, the technology is the inevitable future of baby-making.

 

 

 Photo: petrov-k/Shutterstock

 


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