Baby in a bag: artificial womb project launches

Future visions: Premature babies could be placed in the bags straight after birth. © Bram Saeys

Is it a dream come true or a science-fiction nightmare? Scientists in the Netherlands have been given €2.9m to build a prototype artificial womb. They say it could save millions of lives.

Imagine it. A vast factory, where babies are stored in plastic bags of nutrients, blood, fluid… These strange red balloons give the babies everything they need to grow, until they are ready to be born.

According to scientists from the Netherlands, this could be a reality in as little as 10 years.

The team from the Maxima Medical Centre have been awarded €2.9m (£2.5m) to build a prototype of an artificial womb, which they say could save millions of lives.

Some 15 million babies are born prematurely each year, half of whom die. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant deaths across the world.

Currently, babies who are born too young are placed in incubators. But, according to Maxima doctor Guid Oei, these plastic cots are a “hostile environment” to premature babies whose lungs are not yet ready to breathe air.

Instead, the artificial womb would keep babies swimming in fluid, replicating the environment in the female uterus, while oxygen and nutrients are fed through an artificial umbilical cord. The babies could be placed in the artificial womb immediately after birth.

The Dutch scientists are building on the work of scientists in Philadelphia, and are seeking approval to test their “biobag” on human embryos, after using the technology to grow a baby lamb in 2017.

“You wouldn’t really imagine putting your baby in a plastic bag,” said Lisa Mandemaker, a designer at Maxima. “But we need to think about a design to save your baby.”

Mandemaker raises the possibility that, in the future, women may choose to forego their uterus altogether and grow their babies in artificial wombs from conception.

“You don’t have to worry about morning sickness, or changes to your body,” she says.

But there are ethical fears about who would control the technology, and how it might be used.

“It’s a very thin line between a dream come true and a horrific science-fiction film,” says Sanne, whose son James died after being born at 24 weeks.

The prospect of babies being grown in tanks, known as ectogenesis, is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s science-fiction novel Brave New World, in which cloned foetuses are grown in “batches” of hundreds. Is it a dream come true or a science-fiction nightmare?

When a child is born

It’s a dream come true, say some. Not only would it save the lives of millions of premature children, it would open up new options for gay couples and women without wombs. Artificial wombs could be a safer alternative to pregnancy and childbirth for many women. Socially, it could erase a central difference between the sexes, so women no longer have to pause their careers for childbearing.

But there are many unsettling questions that remain unanswered: when foetuses are viable from conception, will abortion be outlawed? Could women be forced to have unwanted embryos extracted and grown? If artificial wombs are a privilege of the elite, will natural birth be stigmatised and negatively linked to class and race? Can we accept these experiments on babies for human trials? We must tread carefully.

You Decide

  1. Should babies be grown in bags?
  2. Does ectogenesis (growth of an organism in artificial conditions outside the body) have more positives or negatives?

Activities

  1. Draw a labelled diagram of an artificial womb, showing how it would work.
  2. Write a short story set in a future where some, or all, babies are grown in artificial wombs.

Some People Say...

“Had God consulted me in the matter, I should have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay.”

Martin Luther (1483-1586), German theologian and religious reformer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
More than 70% of premature babies are born between 34 and 36 weeks gestation. Babies born before 22 weeks have almost no chance of survival, while at 22 weeks the chance is only around 10%. But just two weeks later, survival rates rise to about 60%. Many of those that survive risk a range of disabilities.
What do we not know?
How long until ectogenesis is a reality. We will likely see it used for premature babies long before it is used from the point of conception. There could be legal obstacles to overcome: the law in the UK and 11 other countries bans human embryos developing outside the body for more than 14 days after fertilisation.

Word Watch

Prototype
An early sample or model.
Prematurely
Born before 37 weeks.
Incubators
These small, plastic tanks are set at certain temperature and humidity levels to help keep the baby safe. They are kept sterile to prevent infection.
Baby lamb
The lambs, which were born at the human equivalent of 23 weeks gestation, were kept alive for four weeks in an artificial womb.
Conception
The moment the sperm fertilises the egg.
Ectogenesis
The science-fiction term for growing babies in an artificial womb. It was coined by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane in 1924.
Brave New World
Published in 1932, it describes a World State where genetically-modified citizens live in an intelligence-based hierarchy. The citizens constantly consume a drug called Soma, which makes them peaceful and content.
Foetuses
A baby or embryo in the uterus, roughly after the eighth week of pregnancy.
Stigmatised
Treated unfairly because of disapproval of them.
Embryos
A fertilised egg during the early stages of pregnancy.

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