Are We Approaching the Age of Effective and Affordable Artificial Wombs?
Womb transplants are already here. These transplanted wombs would likely be disposable — they would be removed after successful birth by C-section — and thrown away. These transplanted wombs are not the same as “artificial wombs,” but they are something of a first step toward changing the order of the natural limitations on childbirth caused by individual variability.
Artificial wombs are coming. A more scientific term for the phenomenon of giving birth outside of the female body, is ectogenesis.
Where are we on the road to ectogenesis right now? To begin, progress has definitely been rapid over the last 20-30 years. In the mid 1990s, Japanese investigators succeeded in maintaining goat fetuses for weeks in a machine containing artificial amniotic fluid. At the same time, the recent decades have seen rapid advancement in neonatal intensive care that is pushing back the minimum gestational age from which human fetuses can be kept alive…
… One of the two developing key technologies is the artificial amniotic fluid filled environment that has continued to develop with laboratory animal models since the work with goats in the 1990s. The other area is embryo transfer. Not only can a developing mammal be transferred from the uterus of its own mother to that of a surrogate, but gradually investigators are reproducing the endometrium–the cell layer of the uterus that contains and nourishes the pregnancy–as a cell culture, or an in vitro model. The convergence of these technologies will make it possible to transfer a developing human into a system that includes the placenta and umbilical cord and supplies all consumables (oxygen and food), and removes all waste, directly through the blood.
… the artificial uterus could have major implications for heterosexual women with fully functional uteri. Many who want children of their own might prefer to forego pregnancy yet would hesitate to hire a human surrogate. Not only is it expensive, but the surrogate could grow fond of the fetus she’s carrying, so why bother taking the risk? __ http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/06/12/artificial-wombs-the-coming-era-of-motherless-births/
Let’s be clear about this: Artificial wombs would allow men without wives to have as many children as they could afford. They would also allow women to have their own children without having to take time off work, change their diets and activities, or carry around a conspicuously developing fetus wherever they go. Artificial wombs would also allow political or religious groups to create their own constituencies — to raise them from scratch without any of the adult members being inconvenienced during the pregnancy.
Surrogacy is Already Available: What Difference Would Artificial Wombs Make?
Artificial wombs — once proven effective, safe, and affordable — might remove some of the worries women have about their child being gestated within and born from the body of a woman they cannot really know or trust very well. Will the woman take good care of the fetus, knowing it will not be hers? Or will she claim that the child is actually hers and refuse to return the baby to the biological parents?
Ectogenesis should provide a well-monitored and guaranteed safe environment for the fetus over the full period of gestation — and the artificial womb will never sue for custody!
Some women may choose to use ectogenesis because they sincerely want to avoid being pregnant, as Shulamith Firestone imagined in her 1970 radical feminist classic Dialectic of Sex
But for many others, artificial gestation may become an economic necessity if it costs less than an ordinary pregnancy. From an employer’s perspective, pregnancy and childbirth represent massive external costs that can’t be rationalised out of existence (until they can).
… Artificial wombs might be just the sort of tool that would allow the state and the market to completely subsume one of the most sacred human activities into the logic of efficiency, without the messy mum-to-be part getting in the way. __ Artificial Wombs Will Shake the Worlds of Feminists
The science is converging from different directions. First, scientists are learning to convert a person’s skin cells into placental cells. The placenta is the life support system for the fetus, delivering nutrition and removing waste through the umbilical cord. Second, scientists are able to grow endometrial layers of the uterus, which form an intimate exchange matrix with the fetal placenta for purposes of fluid, nutrition, waste, and other vital material exchanges. Third, artificial amniotic fluids are being developed which have provided developing animal embryos with safe environments for several weeks of development.
We know that healthy babies can develop outside the womb — but inside a woman’s body — from the rare examples of abdominal pregnancy.
A pregnant woman with a stomach ache turned out to have a serious pregnancy complication that was missed during her previous ultrasound exams: The woman’s 32-week-old fetus was growing within her abdomen, outside her uterus, according to a new report of her case.
When doctors examined the woman further and discovered the abdominal pregnancy, they quickly operated on the woman’s abdomen and found her live fetus floating in her abdominal cavity, without its nourishing amniotic sac. The healthy baby girl was delivered and sent home with her 22-year-old mother in good condition, researchers in Tanzania said. __ http://www.livescience.com/44009-healthy-baby-rare-abdominal-pregnancy.html
Such cases are rare, but by no means unkown. 24 cases had been reported up to the year 2007. They illustrate that an embryo can implant outside of the uterus, produce its own placenta, and develop through normal fetal developmental stages. Delivery is very tricky, and requires care in dealing with the placenta in order to prevent life-threatening hemorrhage. But it is the concept of wombless gestation itself that is fascinating to those who contemplate designing artificial wombs.
Once the details are worked out, it is only a matter of time before genetically augmented embryos are grown in a quasi-factory setting. Which nations will be the first to endorse the mass-production of augmented babies?
They are meeting in China; they are meeting in the United Kingdom; and they met in the United States last week. Around the world, scientists are gathering to discuss the promise and perils of editing the genome of a human embryo. Should it be allowed — and if so, under what circumstances?…
… The prospects have prompted widespread concern and discussion among scientists, ethicists and patients. Fears loom that if genome editing becomes acceptable in the clinic to stave off disease, it will inevitably come to be used to introduce, enhance or eliminate traits for non-medical reasons. Ethicists are concerned that unequal access to such technologies could lead to genetic classism. And targeted changes to a person’s genome would be passed on for generations, through the germ line (sperm and eggs), fuelling fears that embryo editing could have lasting, unintended consequences…
… But the research has already begun, and more is coming. Scientists in China announced in April that they had used CRISPR to alter the genomes of human embryos, albeit ones incapable of producing a live baby (P. Liang et al. Protein Cell 6, 363–372; 2015). Xiao-Jiang Li, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who has used the technique in monkeys, says he has heard rumours that several other Chinese laboratories are already doing such experiments. And in September, developmental biologist Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute in London applied to the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for permission to use the technique to study errors in embryo development that can contribute to infertility and miscarriage. No one so far has declared an interest in producing live babies with edited genomes, and initial experiments would suggest that it is not yet safe. But some suspect that it is only a matter of time. __ http://www.nature.com/news/where-in-the-world-could-the-first-crispr-baby-be-born-1.18542
The laws and guidelines will be ignored, circumvented, or overridden. Genetically enhanced fetuses will be developed — and if particular fetuses possess particularly superlative features, they may well be cloned and grown on a mass production basis in artificial womb facilities.
More information on individual components of artificial wombs:
The inner lining of the artificial uterus [the endometrium] should resemble the real thing as much as possible… To that end, an artificial endometrium should not be made from glass or metal, but instead consist of a glandular layer made of real tissue. A blastocyst conceived via in vitro fertilization could then be implanted about 3 to 4 mm into the endometrium where it would take root and proceed to grow…
… a fully functional placenta will be crucial to the baby’s development and eventual good health. For example, the placenta is responsible for transferring the mother’s igG antibodies to the fetus — an important mechanism that provides protection to the infant while its immune system develops. Placental hormones also control fetal growth. During the early stages of pregnancy, the placenta provides the fetus with serotonin, which helps with brain development. And as noted, the placenta also regulates the way nutrients are delivered to the fetus, including the delivery of amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose…
… amniotic fluid contains nutrients and growth factors that facilitate fetal growth. At first it consists of water and electrolytes, but it eventually contains proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, antimicrobial agents, and urea. It also protects and cushions the fetus.
Amniotic fluid is also “inhaled” and “exhaled” by the fetus, an important process that’s essential to the development of healthy lungs. A fetus will also swallow the fluid, which creates the urea and meconium….
… The [artificial womb] will also need to operate at just the right temperature. The fetus develops 0.3 to 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than mother’s, so typically about 37 degrees Celsius…
… The fetus will also need to be stimulated across a number of sensorial domains. And indeed, the maternal womb has been called “an optimal, stimulating, interactive environment for human development.”
Ideally, the a-womb should move the unborn baby in a way reminiscent to how a mother moves, including standing, walking, and lying down positions. The incubator should be set to a 24-hour clock in which waking and sleeping hours are simulated. Basically, activity should never cease, nor should the fetus ever feel physically “isolated”. A sense of touch will also need to be simulated.
Fetuses are also active listeners. This is very important from a developmental perspective, both in terms of exciting the neural areas required for hearing, and for the unborn baby to bond with its caregivers in advance. Sounds should definitely be a part of the artificial uterus, including the steady swish-swishing of a heart beat…
… an artificial womb is not susceptible to disease or malnourishment, nor will it be prone to drinking or smoking. And with the assistance of powerful computers, advanced biotech, and even microscopic machines, the gestational process will be further optimized.
What effect will artificial wombs have on traditional marriage? Wealthy and high-earning professional men and women may opt out of marriage altogether, choosing to create “high cost but low personal maintenance” children using the latest in science and technology. The nanny and governess occupations may be more in demand.
Nations such as Japan and Russia, struggling with shrinking populations which threaten their long-term existence, may invest deeply in artificial wombs, for purposes of growing large new cadres of loyal new citizens.
Long-distance space colonists are likely to transport human settlers in the form of frozen embryos, radiation shielded and ready for implantation into artificial wombs on arrival at the colonial destination.
But as genetic augmentation of embryos becomes safe and more perfectible, we are likely to see the breeding of large numbers of human specimens created to do specific types of jobs. They may be grown in creches, never knowing their pre-augmentation biological parents, property of the state — or whatever cooperative organsiation that arranged for their creation, gestation, birth, and care.
A number of possible scenarios present themselves, but few would deny that artificial wombs represent a disruptive innovation that would have an almost immediately disruptive effect — especially when combined with cloning and genetic augmentation and customisation.
How long before this confluence of developments will reveal itself as a fait accompli? The individual ingredients are well under development. If governments cannot prevent their computers being hacked, and cannot prevent illicit drugs, weapons, and illegal aliens from penetrating their borders — it is unlikely that a government can prevent being infiltrated by these technologies at multiple levels.
Guard your DNA as carefully as you can. Someday, “identity theft” may be more all-encompassing than stealing personal data for nefarious use. Someday, impostors identical to you may be able to step into your life and do with it as they please. Tragically, they may make a better you, than you do. 😉
Future divorce may involve having your middle-aged self being replaced by a much younger clone. Like Stepford Wives, except with real flesh and blood people who not only look like you once did, they are what you once were.
Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. Try to be Dangerous enough to protect your identity, and those of your loved ones. Don’t let yourself be made obsolete before your time.
The astounding correspondence between gene expression and behaviour: This is something the “blank slaters” won’t like!