Ectogenesis, raising a foetus outside the human body in an artificial womb, seems like an impossible goal but it is set to become possible in the next 20 to 30 years and it could change the lives of women wanting to have children as well as the perception of women in society.
While the risk of having a baby in today’s world is much lower than it was a hundred years ago, it is estimated that over 250,000 mothers die in childbirth every year. The use of an artificial womb would save these lives and prevent the complications that many more mothers develop. It would also mean that women with a damaged uterus or a disease which could cause risky complications in the event of pregnancy, such as Graves’s disease, would still be able to have a healthy child.
Pregnancy can also be a stressful time for mothers. They have to worry about what they are putting into their bodies and the tasks they are carrying out, thinking about how this will affect their unborn child. With the child developing in an artificial womb, the mothers are free to live their lives. This would also prevent disorders such as foetal alcohol syndrome which can occur in circumstances where mothers drink during pregnancy.
Artificial wombs would also reduce the need for surrogate mothers – women who have a baby for somebody else. Every year, hundreds of women become surrogate mothers where in some situations they are the biological mother (traditional surrogacy). This not only exposes these women to the risks of pregnancy but with a traditional surrogate, there is the added risk of becoming attached to the baby, such as in the ‘Baby M’ case in the 1980’s. Artificial wombs would allow gay male couples to have a baby of their own using only an egg donor instead of having to find a surrogate to carry the baby for them which is a huge physical and emotional commitment.
Artificial wombs could also have a social impact. As a woman would no longer be needed to carry a baby, it could change the way women are perceived in society and may lead to higher job equality. It would also allow older women to have a child safely and may prevent some miscarriages.
If research in this area continues at its current rate, artificial wombs could be a reality within our lifetime. The revolutionary reality of such a development could lead to less pregnancy complications, allow more people to have children safely as well as change the status of women in our modern society.
“Artificial wombs could change the way women are perceived in society and may lead to higher job equality”
Artificial wombs are theoretical devices that allow pregnancies outside a woman’s body. In theory it could offer uncomplicated safer pregnancies, however, in reality they could present a number of problems.
Pregnancy is a very contentious ethical and religious topic. What would happen if a mother decides she doesn’t want her baby anymore? Current abortion rights in the UK allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy if there are health complications with the parent or baby. However, in an artificial pregnancy there would be no health risks to the parent and much lower health risks for the baby. If parents decided to abort a baby in this situation, switching off the machine could arguably constitute murder.
There are a number of processes in the way pregnancy works that are unknown. Because medical knowledge is incomplete, by not including these processes in the artificial womb a baby could be put at risk. Presently, the technology required is not advanced enough to support human life. We can oxygenate the blood of a fetus with “extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation” or ECMO for short. This is a procedure that is normally carried out for heart transplants and in the very sick. However, there are a number of problems with ECMO which has been associated with kidney failure, bleeding problems, breakdown of red blood cells and infection. These could put the baby at unnecessary risk. Because ECMO in unborn children is a new and untested technology the first babies in artificial wombs could be at immeasurable risk. If artificial wombs were perfected it could become the norm. Whilst this would be safer for those at risk of complications of pregnancy, the vast majority of pregnancies are uncomplicated and do not require intervention. Women receiving artificial womb pregnancies when they do not require it would place unnecessary burden on an already stretched NHS.
The physical and emotional nature of pregnancy and the birthing process forms a tremendous bond between a mother and her child. By removing the mother from the process, this could weaken the bond. Stigma may also be generated through different birthing processes. Children and adults alike could face bullying and discrimination for being “artificial babies” or alternatively “non-artificial babies”. When a woman does not undergo a pregnancy she will not undergo the changes to her body that would normally occur. Her breasts will not lactate and so she will not be able to provide milk for her baby, which provides valuable nutrients to promote healthy growth and helps protect against infection.
In theory artificial wombs could be a good thing, and once perfected they may be beneficial for the small number of mothers who are at an elevated risk of encountering complications during pregnancy. However, for the population as a whole, artificial wombs are a controversial and unnecessary concept.