Artificial wombs – a first step to a lot of possible futures

By | April 26, 2017

These little lambs spent the latter half of their pregnancy term in artificial wombs, outside their mothers bodies. And their physical development appears not to have been affected when compared to normal development – an excellent first indicator on the success of growing babies in artificial wombs.

Of course, the artificial womb isn't ready for a test-tube baby yet: under this scenario, the first stages of pregnancy, until a minimum developmental age has been reached, still takes place inside the biological mother. But it does raise a lot of interesting possibilities:
– Would it be possible to place premature babies in an artificial womb to allow their organs to fully develop properly, thus saving a lot of lives and preventing a lot of complications and agony?
– Is this the future of industrialized meat – with mother animals initiating pregnancies at shorter intervals, and their offspring set in artificial wombs to fully mature for slaughter?
– Would it be possible, one day, to put the first stages of pregnancy into an artificial womb as well, to raise a test-tube baby to birth completely externally from a biological mother?

Aside from the unnatural appearance of the artificial womb, given the high costs of premature birth (both monetary and in terms of trying to save the infant's health, which I assure you looks a lot more unnatural than an artificial womb), this is a very promising development. The other potential applications that spontaneously came to mind, though, perhaps need some serious ethical thought before continuing down the rabbit hole…

/via +Ishmael Ahmed

An artificial womb successfully grew baby sheep — and humans could be next
Inside what look like oversized ziplock bags strewn with tubes of blood and fluid, eight fetal lambs continued to develop — much like they would have inside their mothers. Over four weeks, their…

11 thoughts on “Artificial wombs – a first step to a lot of possible futures

  1. Sophie Wrobel

    It would be nice if convenience was the only dilemma involved. But given the state of politics, I think some of the bigger questions are: What happens to abortions? If pro-life policies mandate artificial wombs to carry babies to term? What if that baby was known to be disabled at the time of the scheduled abortion? And in countries without public health care, who sits on the costs?

    Routine episiotomy gets me mad. As a patient, I don't even get informed about that, let alone make the call on whether it should be done or only in medical necessity in a hospital setting. Same with infusions. I acknowledge that there are situations where these practices can save lives and prevent more serious consequences, but that's most often not the case.

  2. Liz Quilty

    THis is a cool idea if they can do it. I have numerous friends who can't carry a baby for various reasons, and laws and issues around surrogates is a bugger

  3. Lerato Majikfaerie

    That's precisely what happened with the advent of "safe" caesarean sections. Something that saved lives in medical situations became an elective option for convenience. Anyone with even the slightest of risk factors (no matter how unfounded), gets urged/ scared / guilted into scheduling one. Emotion plays a big part.
    Economics plays a big part (it's a huge income for the doctors).
    But in the majority of cases it's medically unnecessary and in all cases comes with risks and side effects.

    I think any optional surgery that isn't medically necessary is a dangerous ethical area. Especially when it's a newborn's life involved and that child has no say in the matter. Especially when the parents making these choices are often giving consent without the requisite information to make an informed choice.

    I don't see how artificial wombs would be approached any differently from surgical delivery, formula feeding, routine episiotomy, and several dozen other procedures I could rattle off the top of my head that should be reserved for medical necessity but have become routine.

  4. Sophie Wrobel

    +Jim Scholfield‚Äč the vegetarian / vegan trend seems to be growing these days – despite some questions of whether or not it is sustainable or healthy. Agriculture has its share of technological issues, too. Terminator genes? Reduced genetic diversity in favor of higher produce? Putting entire crops and plant species at risk of extinction? The world as it is is already a brave new world, the question is only where along the slippery slope of ethics and management we decide to stand.

  5. Sophie Wrobel

    Well, personally I'm for as natural a birth as possible. But I can see how my doctors comments, "given your track record, you need to go to the hospital before the first contraction", probably would make some expectant mothers panic and look for alternatives, and at that stage emotion plays a bigger role than unknown risks and statistics. Though turning artificial wombs into an optional procedure for situations in which it is not medically necessary for the infants survival is a very grey ethical dilemma!

  6. Jim Scholfield

    This has real potential for helping premature babies. As for the industrialized meat production idea, that the last straw. I'm vegan now or at least vegetarian.

  7. Sophie Wrobel

    +Lerato Majikfaerie Ha, I could use a good midwife in a few months. Any chance you'll be dropping by? :p

    I don't doubt you at all – two things that come to mind regarding obvious complications resulting from the artificial womb procedure are some discussions on potential genetic influences of hereditary mitochondrial DNA transfer relating to umbilical cord attachment / detachment after birth, and the 'human contact factor' that repeatedly has been demonstrated to positively affect premature infant development and recovery. I'm sure there will be more.

  8. Lerato Majikfaerie

    +Sophie Wrobel I'm a midwife so I'm more informed on the subject than most people.
    And the reality is that people will take an option that seems "easy", especially when doctors who haven't done sufficient long term studies tell them it's totally safe.
    Like how people believed breastmilk or formula feeding was like the difference between coke and Pepsi. But it's not.
    Even when there aren't any complications and it all looks "fine" on the surface, there are long term effects and epigenetic changes.
    We all thought x rays were safe and without side effects until the childhood leukaemia epidemic.
    Slippery slopes indeed.

  9. Sophie Wrobel

    I'd almost forgotten about the unusually high caesarean rates in some countries. But you're right – in such countries, if popping the babies into an artificial womb mid-pregnancy means women are back to work at full productivity faster, that slippery slope might be closer to reality than we'd like!

  10. Lerato Majikfaerie

    At least in terms of potential for saving premature babies, this could have incredible medical applications.
    But I'd hate to look at the slippery slope of women having elective preterm surgical deliveries and popping their babies in an artificial womb just for convenience.
    Humans made caesarean section an option for convenience, despite all the evidence of higher risks and complications, not to mention the higher incidence of long term health issues for the babies, and the mothers

    Just because we can do a thing, and just because in some instances it's medically indicated and can save lives, doesn't mean it's a good idea for standard practise. Antibiotics is a prime example.


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