- Artificial womb technology is expected to be available in less than a decade.
- Artificial wombs will initially be used to augment infertility medicine.
- This technology will likely be appealing for reasons other than medical necessity.
- Time will reveal artificial wombs' emotional and physiological impact on parents and their offspring.
The business of babymaking is about to be re-invented yet again. This won’t be the first time technology has permanently modified the ways babies are conceived and gestated, but it certainly heralds a dramatic shift in the business of human procreation. Sooner than you can probably imagine, people will have the choice between gestating a fetus inside a human body or outside one.
Researchers have experimented with gestating lamb fetuses for periods of time in an artificial womb, though such fetuses have not yet been brought to term. (Here’s a fascinating YouTube video if you are curious). The Netherlands seem to be leading this effort, as their scientists predict they will have the capability to gestate human fetuses by 2030. Even if we double their estimate, this is still happening fast. The implications of this soon-to-be-released technology are truly mind-blowing. Like all technological advancements, there will be benefits to humanity, as well as challenges. We will explore a handful of relevant issues here.
At first glance, this may not appear to be a monumental development. After all, premature infants born without fully functioning lungs have successfully matured in incubators for many decades. Yet the technology available today is limited to babies already reasonably viable. For example, it cannot replicate the complex functions of an umbilical cord or placenta. Today, we can fertilize a human egg outside of a human body via IVF, but without a human uterus, the embryo remains just that–a small mass of cells. Enter artificial wombs.
The most obvious use of an artificial uterus would be for babies born so prematurely that they cannot be placed in an incubator. Giving these babies a chance at life seems like a no-brainer. Providing women with inhospitable wombs or people without wombs the opportunity to have genetic offspring without having to rely on a surrogate mother may be the next most obvious use of artificial womb technology. With infertility rates on the rise and people and couples without wombs desiring biological offspring, removing the complexities of surrogate mothering would be a much-welcome shift. Artificial womb technology would seem a much more dependable, sterile alternative–no worries about a host mother’s stress levels, medical health, eating habits, or exposure to environmental toxins.
Other potential benefits include that it allows for surgical correction of some fetal abnormalities that are currently impossible if a fetus gestates in a human womb. Some feminists have heralded artificial wombs as the great equalizer of the genders. Never again will a woman be professionally limited because of pregnancy. For the first time in the history of humanity, pregnancy will be a choice rather than an essential component of baby-making.
Just decades ago, parenting required a male and female to have intercourse resulting in an egg being fertilized, successfully attaching to the uterus, and ultimately developing inside a woman’s body. Within a few years, none of these stages will be required. Eggs can already be fertilized in a test tube. These fertilized cells can mature into a fetus while still in the lab. Soon a fetus could be implanted in an artificial womb. It’s likely that most people reading this post today will one day know a world where babies can be made without the involvement of a human body.
However, the ethics of these advancements are murky at best. For example, what could be the emotional and physical impact of being reared in an artificial space? I expect the recorded sound of a parent’s heartbeat and voice will be channeled into the womb. A parent’s scent can likely infiltrate a room so that a baby’s first breath is infused with it. The fetus will not have to contend with spikes in a parent’s cortisol levels, side effects of pollution or medication, or inadequate nutrition. A perfect environment for development, it would seem.
Yet researchers and scientists have speculated that a growing fetus begins the process of adapting to their unique environment post-birth by coping with the challenges it confronts in utero. These uterine challenges may lead to harmful and/or adaptive changes in the fetus’s body and DNA. For better or for worse, an artificial uterus won’t provide this learning environment. Even though we may soon be birthing babies via artificial wombs, it will still be many decades–until these infants are well into adulthood–before we are able to comprehend the psychosocial and physical impact of these choices fully. As such, these will be experimental babies.
The consequences on expectant parents are also worth considering. What a relief this offers women who are at risk for complicated births. But with most technologies, there may be unequal access for wealthier parents. Will insurance companies pay for this option? Further, a baby’s presence is felt in a household for about nine months. Each trimester brings new physical challenges as a woman’s pregnancy advances. If she’s with a partner, her partner is also adjusting to these changes. It seems likely that the lack of this experience could be emotionally impactful in some way. Of course, in one sense, this is not new. Adoptive parents pick up their infant at a scheduled date and time. But they have been through a tremendous vetting process involving much waiting and uncertainty. I’m inclined to think that scheduling the arrival of your newborn from an artificial womb is a different psychological experience.
What it means to be human is changing faster than at any point in human history. The benefits and pitfalls as we evolve with technology will show themselves in time. It’s not too soon to consider the psychological impact of artificial uterus technology on prospective parents and their offspring. I can imagine that in the not-too-distant future, someone will say, “Can you believe people used to grow babies…in their bodies?”
Bergh, E., Buskmiller, C. & Johnson, A. (2021). The Future of Fetal Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, 48, 4, 745-758, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ogc.2021.06.004.
De Bie, F.R., Kim, S.D., Bose, S.K., Nathanson, P., Partridge, E.A., Flake, A.W. & Feudtner, C. (2023) Ethics Considerations Regarding Artificial Womb Technology for the Fetonate, The American Journal of Bioethics, 23:5, 67-78, DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2022.2048738
Zhang, Y., Wang, Q., Wang, H. & Duan, E. (2017). Uterine fluid in pregnancy: A biological and clinical outlook. Trends in Molecular Medicine, 23, 7, 604-614, DOI: 10.1016/j.molmed.2017.05.002