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 baby deaths across the world.

The artificial womb would keep babies swimming in fluid, like in the female uterus.

Scientist Lisa Mandemaker thinks that that, in the future, women may choose to 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.

So, which is it?

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.

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 linked negatively to class and race? We must tread carefully.

You Decide

  1. Should babies be grown in bags?

Activities

  1. Draw a labelled diagram of an artificial womb, showing how it would work.

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?
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%.
What do we not know?
How long until artificial wombs are a reality. In the UK and 11 other countries, it is illegal for human embryos to develop outside the body for more than 14 days after fertilisation.

Word Watch

Vast
Very big.
Prototype
An early sample or model.
Prematurely
Born before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
Conception
The moment the sperm fertilises the egg.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.