Researchers with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have developed an artificial womb for enabling premature lamb fetuses to develop in the same way they would in a natural womb. According to the study published in Nature Communications, the artificial wombs proved highly effective and resulted in the lambs developing normally.
This holds huge implications for the problem of preterm birth. If artificial womb technology were to develop to the point that it could be used on human fetuses, it could bring much needed help to the millions of babies worldwide that are born prematurely each year, and save both lives and money. Naturally, there are massive ethical concerns to contend with here, such as how safe and effective they will be in caring for human fetuses, as well as the uncomfortable idea that tests on human fetuses may be necessary to make sure the artificial wombs work properly. However, despite these ethical concerns, the sheer overall good that reliable artificial wombs will bring for babies who are prematurely born makes investment in this technology worth the risk.
The lamb fetuses used in the research were between 105 and 120 days in their gestation. This point in their development is roughly similar to the 23-week point for a human fetus. A baby delivered at 23 weeks is considered “extremely preterm” by the World Health Organization, and has a very low chance of survival. Even if they survive, they are at a higher risk of complications such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy and developmental delay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Reproductive Health. As for the lambs in the study, the artificial wombs were just as good as a natural one, and the lambs were on a normal, healthy developmental track. If scientists can adapt this technology to work for human fetuses, it could essentially give prematurely born babies another chance at survival and a healthy life. On top of that, it could reduce the annual medical costs of dealing with preterm birth, which measures in the billions in the United States.
Now, despite all the good that making artificial wombs for humans might bring, this is still something we have to approach with extreme care because of the ethical issues it raises, as well as the problems it might create down the line.
Just because the artificial wombs worked for lambs does not necessarily mean they will work for humans. Adapting this technology to work on infants will require years of fine tuning and testing. It’d be nice if researchers could achieve this without putting preterm infants in undue danger, but unfortunately, that might not necessarily be an option. In an NPR article, bioethicists speculated on the other risks of artificial wombs, namely in the social and political realms. For example, bioethicist Scott Gelfand brought up the concern that employers could require pregnant employees to use an artificial womb instead of carrying their child to term by themselves, so that the employer could get out of paying maternity leave. Even though artificial wombs for people are still a far-off goal, we must consider how they will fit into the complexities of pregnancy and childbirth ahead of time. We must especially be aware of the ways in which employers, insurers or politicians could abuse them, and be prepared to prevent that from happening.
Even though this will undoubtedly be a controversial and ongoing issue, we still ought to invest money and research into artificial wombs and prepare for them to be a reality. If they can be made safe and effective for infants, they will absolutely be worth the cost and effort. Despite the severe ethical dilemmas that artificial wombs present, the sheer benefit that they will bring for premature babies and their families is much too important to deny. Currently, incubators don’t do nearly enough to help preterm infants; it’s time we do more to give these children another chance.