“Babies who a few years ago would have been wrapped in a blanket and left in a closet awaiting certain death are now going home to their mother in two to three weeks.” explained Matt Kemp, director of the perinatal research laboratories of la WIRF australiana, to what extent the extremely bizarre idea of an ‘artificial womb’ not only is it not science fiction, but it is something that is getting closer.
And it is going to be a century since J.B.S. Haldane, one of the most important English geneticists in history, coined the term ‘ectogenesis’ to refer to the pregnancies that would take place in these artificial wombs. It’s more, it will be a century since Haldan predicted that in 2074 less than 30% of pregnancies would be ‘natural’. 50 years after that 2074, the prediction seems more real than ever and that can have implications that we cannot even suspect.
How close are we to being able to gestate?
Currently, the viability line of human fetuses is around the 22nd and 23rd week of pregnancy. That is the time when the lungs develop and, even today, it remains a critical point. So much so that while only 20% of those born at 23 weeks survive, that figure scale up to 80% when we talk about born in week 25. Continuing to push this line towards the beginning is one of the two great battle fronts that will come together in artificial wombs: reducing deaths (and the consequences) caused by premature births (one in ten pregnancies currently in the US).
In 2017, a team of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia they placed lambs with 107 days of gestation (the equivalent of 23-24 weeks of gestation in a human being) inside this bag that simulated the environment inside a maternal womb. It was a resounding success and opened up a very promising line of work in a field that had eluded us for a long time.
However, the challenge is very ambitious. First, due to the ethical limitations that make it difficult to carry out this type of experiments in humans (the methodologies have to be very mature to receive the OK of the bioethics committees). And second because of the inherent technical complications: as Matt Kent pointed out things as basic as pumping blood to very immature fetuses are a first level technological problem, a pressure is needed that the tissues cannot withstand well.
The other battle front is in the development of embryos, and we have also advanced a great deal on this. Examples are not lacking: the professor Yoshinori Kuwabara and his team from Juntendo University in Japan were able to gestate embryos goat in a machine with tanks filled with amniotic fluid. The teacher Helen Hung-Ching Liu, of Cornell University Center for Reproductive Medicine, also managed to bring the development of a mouse embryo to near term thanks to a bioengineered endometrium. But his most famous (and controversial) experiment involved incubating a human embryo for ten days.
Where is this technology taking us?
The medical benefits are clear: This technology could help couples struggling to have children or help premature babies survive. Pregnancy and childbirth are extremely hard processes and many theorists already speak of the end of natural pregnancy as the ‘last great liberation of humanity’. But above all, it could represent one of the greatest social, educational and health advances in decades. ‘Ectogenesis’ can provide safe and healthy gestational environments away from pollutants, drugs and alcohol. Martha J. Farah, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent many years studying the relationships between brain development and socioeconomic status. The generalization of ectogenesis could eliminate one of the biggest sources of inequality that exist: the conditions of pregnancy.
It is not so clear that the arrival of this type of technology would have a significant impact on current demographic trends. What demographer Lyman Stone pointed out, “the transition to lower fertility rates could have happened in 1500 or 1300 or 900 or 500 BC; in fact, it probably happened in those periods in various places, but because it did not happen at the same time as the massive economic growth for improving living standards, improving child survival, and compensating for population losses from falling fertility, was never sustained.” That is, it is about a much deeper problem (and it is rooted in culture, productivity and social relationships) for such a technological solution to turn them around.
Instead, the ethical, moral and legal consequences are not yet entirely clear. Nor social changes: what consequences for social behavior will the radical equalization of the investment of both parents in the gestation process have? Samantha Allen, of the Daily Beast, wondered what would happen if the uterus, the most ‘politicized’ part of a woman’s body, was ‘externalized’ and concluded that would change feminism forever. Or put another way: removing the pregnancy from the woman’s body would mean a change so radical that we are not able to imagine the kind of world that would see the light. Although most likely it will not take long to meet him.
Imagen | Hush Naidoo Jade Photography