Ideen om å vokse babyer utenfor kroppen har inspirert romaner og filmer i flere tiår.
Nå undersøker forskergrupper over hele verden muligheten for kunstig svangerskap. For eksempel en gruppe vokste med hell et lam i en kunstig livmor i fire uker. Australske forskere har også eksperimentert med kunstig svangerskap for lam og haier.
Og de siste ukene forskere i Nederland har mottatt € 2.9m ($ 4.66m) for å utvikle en prototype for drektige premature babyer.
Så det er viktig å vurdere noen av de etiske problemene denne teknologien kan føre til.
Hva er en kunstig livmor?
Å dyrke en baby utenfor livmoren er kjent som ektogenese (eller eksogenese). Og vi bruker allerede en form for det. Når premature barn blir overført til humidicribs for å fortsette sin utvikling i en nyfødt enhet, er det delvis ektogenese.
Men en kunstig livmor kan forlenge perioden et foster kunne gestuseres utenfor kroppen. Etter hvert kan vi kanskje gjøre unna menneskelige livmor helt.
Dette kan høres langsiktig ut, men mange forskere som jobber med reproduktiv bioteknologi mener at med den nødvendige vitenskapelige og juridiske støtten er full ektogenese en reell mulighet for fremtiden.
Hva ville en kunstig livmor inneholde?
En kunstig livmor ville trenge et ytre skall eller kammer. Det er et sted å implantere embryoet og beskytte det når det vokser. Så langt har dyreforsøk brukt acrylic tanks, plastics bags and uterine tissues removed from an organism and artificially kept alive.
An artificial womb would also need a synthetic replacement for amniotic fluid, a shock absorber in the womb during natural pregnancy.
Finally, there would have to be a way to exchange oxygen and nutrients (so oxygen and nutrients in and carbon dioxide and waste products out). In other words, researchers would have to build an artificial placenta.
Animal experiments have used a complex catheter and pump systems. But there are plans to use a mini version of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a technique that allows blood to be oxygenated outside the body.
And just as in the case of IVF, there are many who are concerned about what this new realm of reproductive medicine might mean for the future of creating a family.
So what are some of the ethical considerations?
Artificial wombs could help premature babies
The main discussion about artificial wombs has focused on their potential benefit in increasing the survival rate of extremely premature babies.
I dag, those born earlier than XNUMX weeks gestation have little-to-no hope of survival. And those born at XNUMX weeks are likely to suffer a range of disabilities.
Using a sealed “biobag,” which mimics the maternal womb might help extremely premature babies survive and improve their quality of life.
A biobag provides oxygen, a type of substitute amniotic fluid, umbilical cord access and all necessary water and nutrients (and medicine, if required). This could potentially allow the gestational period to be prolonged outside the womb until the baby has developed sufficiently to live independently and with good health prospects.
An artificial womb might provide an optimum environment for the fetus to grow, providing it with the appropriate balance of hormones and nutrients. It would also avoid exposing the growing fetus to external harms such as infectious diseases.
The technology might also make it easier to perform surgery on the fetus if needed.
And it could see the end of long-term hospital stays for premature infants, saving health care dollars in the process. This is particularly noteworthy considering some of the largest private insurance payments are currently for neonatal intensive care unit expenses.
Artificial wombs could help with infertility and fertility
This emerging reproductive technology may allow women who are infertile, either due to physiological or social reasons, with the chance of having a child. It may also offer opportunities for transgender women and other women born without a uterus, or those who have lost their uterus due to cancer, injury or medical conditions, to have children.
Similarly, it could allow single men and gay male couples to become parents without needing a surrogate.
Will this lead to a broader discussion about gender roles and equality in reproduction? Will it remove potential risks and expectations of pregnancy and childbirth currently only affecting women? Will this eliminate commercial surrogacy?
Equally, artificial wombs could help fertile women who for health or personal reasons choose not to be pregnant. It would allow those whose career choices, medication or lifestyle might otherwise expose a developing fetus to malformation or abnormality.