A birth without a womb may sound to many as a concept taken directly from a science fiction movie. But it turns out that it is becoming real science and not fiction. We are talking here about an artificial womb which allows the embryo to grow and develop outside of the mother’s body.
In 2017, six lamb embryos were born in an unconventional manner: they were taken out from their mother’s womb at a very early stage (too early to survive independently) and were put in a plastic-made artificial womb.
This experiment took place in a children hospital in Philadelphia. The researchers placed the embryos in a sack filled with liquids that simulated the amniotic fluid of the sheep. Each of the sacks contained a mechanism that pumped blood into and out of the umbilical cord. Before it was returned to the umbilical cord, the blood was purified and enriched with oxygen, as happens in the mother’s body. In the past, several attempts were made to operate an artificial womb, but in this experiment, for the first time, the flow of blood was precisely timed according to the embryos’ heart rate.
The baby sheep survived in the womb for four weeks, until they completed a full gestation cycle. At this stage, some of them were terminated for further research, but others were “born” alive without any significant differences between them and other sheep born after normal pregnancy. The sheep born artificially are today one year old.
The Medical Benefits
The prospect of an artificial womb causes much excitement in the medical community. Fetuses of mothers with contagious diseases will be able to “be born” free from the risk of these diseases. In addition, it will be possible to perform surgery and give medical treatment that is currently impossible inside a mother’s womb.
Most importantly, we will be able to save the lives of babies who are born prematurely. These babies constitute 10 percent of all births in the United States. Today, with current medical technology, the chances of survival of a human fetus born in the 23rd week are only 15%. The chances of survival increase to 55% after the 24th week and 80% after the 26th week. However, premature babies are highly likely to suffer from various cognitive and health impairments later on in life.
Putting aside the medical imperative, an artificial womb will have profound social impact that will be felt in all fields of life. It may make us rethink how we define the origin and beginning of life. It will, undoubtedly, change our understanding gender roles in society – the role of the mother in the family in particular.
From a more practical point of view, women with problems sustaining pregnancy (especially those who suffer from repeated first-trimester miscarriages) will not need to look for a surrogate mother. In addition, parents will be able to see their baby right from the start, from the moment he/she is an embryo.
The article was contributed by Susan Meis, an M.A. student of Biology from Michigan