The artificial womb: how big will its impact be?

Image by Lea Liotier

When the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia published a study showing two photographs of a premature lamb fetus healthily growing within an extra-uterine artificial womb, that looked pretty much like a plastic bag full of liquid, the world witnessed what could potentially overturn how pregnancy and childbirth have been conceived since time immemorial.

The procedure of ectogenesis—the gestation outside of a biological womb—has not yet been tested on human beings, but has successfully been done so on lambs. The futuristic practice of growing embryos outside of the wombs however is currently under extensive research, particularly for the benefits it could bring in the case of severe premature born babies. Today, premature babies are put in neonatal incubators, but with most critical cases, and in particular if the baby is born before 28 weeks of gestation, the probability that the baby will survive is frighteningly low, with high risks of health complications.

An artificial uterus, like the one used for the lambs, would provide the fetuses a womb-like environment that would enable the completion of their gestation, theoretically, without any health hazards. But apart from providing a life saving service, this future device would also be used to initiate fetal development as well as fetal surgery.

Beyond the medical advancements that such a device promises, an external pregnancy would allow same sex couples, trans people, as well as single male parents, to have children without having to utilise commercial surrogacy. Also, as Aarathi Prasad argues on the Guardian, “if an artificial womb is created, it will mean that women will be freed from the dangers of pregnancy, and create a more equal distribution of “labour”, with women able to work throughout gestation.”

To imagine a baby being created outside the human body—namely in a lab—is an idea that is hard to grasp. The legal, ethical, and philosophical concerns behind the artificial womb are many and very much legitimate, yet, its benefits seem to be quite appealing. One thing is certain, if and when external pregnancies will happen, concepts of family, reproduction, gender, equality, and the idea of the human itself, will change forever.