Grow your baby in your living room - a look at artificial wombs

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As we deal with the possibility of having an artificial womb made available to the public in the future, we examine its implications on family life and the world at large.

Students from Artez Product Design Arnhem have come up with a solution to surrogate pregnancy: Par-tu-ri-ent, a type of artificial womb. Its purpose is to bring a fetus to term from outside the mother’s own womb. Don't get too excited just yet, though. Par-tu-ri-ent is still in the concept stage. But its implications are far-reaching.

The artificial womb is essentially a pod shaped incubator connected to the internet. With its clear, curved, transparent lid, you can literally watch your baby grow. 

It comes with something called a “portable care bag.” Sling it over your shoulder, and it simulates the baby’s kicks. Gently rock the portable care bag, and the pod simulates the movement remotely. This allows you to enhance the bonding experience with your unborn child even though you're not actually carrying the baby in the womb.

For delivering nutrients to your baby, you can use the detachable feeding device. The pod also has a device that parents can use to talk or sing to the growing fetus. 

The concept was presented this year, with the intention of showing us  “a realistic impression of what the consequences of the progress of biotechnology and bio-design could be.”

The artificial womb is doable

Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia made waves earlier this year when they successfully grew a baby lamb in an artificial womb. Dubbing it the “biobag”, this new technology is intended to improve the survival rate of premature babies.

It’s a significant improvement to conventional incubators and a godsend to moms with ailing premature babies. 

Of course, the goal of this research is to be able to use this technology on human babies in the future. So researchers at Cambridge University made an effort to keep a human embryo alive outside the body for 13 days using a mixture of nutrients that mimic conditions inside the womb.

Artificial womb for saving lives

The embryo lasted several days longer than previously observed. However, the research was stopped before they approached the 14-day legal limit for the length of time an embryo can be kept in a lab. It's a case of ethics versus technological advancement. Nevertheless, the potential for artificial wombs is there.

Not only does an artificial womb save the lives of premature babies, it can also help infertile couples, give gay and trans couples new fertility options, and enable older couples to conceive. It is also a safer option for women with health issues during pregnancy.

An artificial womb can provide a safer, healthier environment for the fetus because it eliminates the risk a mother’s lifestyle can have on the baby. These risks include a mother’s working conditions, her place of residence, and questionable lifestyle choices like drugs and alcohol.

Is it wrong?

The issues behind an artificial womb are many. It would change people’s attitudes towards pregnancy. It could take away responsibility from prospective mothers to keep themselves healthy for their children.

There’s also the issue of cherry picking a baby’s characteristics to cultivate the "perfect human." Expectant couples may terminate fetuses that don't develop the way they want. 

An artificial womb can provide a solution for countries with dwindling populations. But the same technology allows governments to create babies en masse for a cheap work force, or even an army.

Would we be creating a new class war or a race war? Would those who are able to afford such technology prosper while everyone is left behind? 

Whatever the answer to these questions, artificial womb technology opens a wide array of possibilities that we can only begin to imagine.

The gender wars

The implications are disconcerting, and having an artificial womb could break down the structure of our lives further. Gender hierarchies in society could slowly fade or disappear overnight.  Women would no longer be held back by pregnancy in participating in male-dominated activities and fields.

How would it change our laws? When control over pregnancy shifts from the mother to a neutral party – a machine – rights over the baby could also shift. Does an embryo have rights? Would unwanted pregnancies be extracted from women and gestated artificially?

There are many changes in society if and when artificial womb technology is made available. There are risks, pitfalls, and benefits. It will totally challenge our way of thinking.

The questions and unseen outcomes that materialise with the invention of an artificial womb is staggering. How do you think it would affect you? Your family? Your neighbours? Let us know in the comments.