As of 2020, the leading cause of death amongst newborns around the world is preterm birth (when infants are born before 37 weeks of gestation). Specifically, babies who are born at 22-23 weeks have a mere survival rate of 0.07%, indicating that the majority of babies born critically preterm─about 30,000 infants a year─pass away (Senthilingam, 2017). According to the CDC, the United States is one of the ten countries with the highest rates of preterm mortality, yet neonatal intensive care units around the country have massive risks and limited success rates when it comes to confronting the biggest issues plaguing preterms: underdeveloped lungs, circulatory problems causing low blood pressure, oxygen deprivation, and inability to swallow (Martin and Osterman, 2018). However, in the past few years, scientists discovered artificial womb technology as a mode to help preterm babies survive by providing them with an external womb to live in until they can live independently of the mother or machines (Romanis, 2018).
Artificial womb technology (AWT) has become a frontier in research due to the prospect that the “biobag” can act as an ex vivo (out of the living) environment for preterm babies as well as early embryos (Bulleti, 2011). In early testing, the biobag sufficiently mimicked a uterine environment to allow lamb fetuses, which are quite similar to the human fetus, to survive for 4 weeks. Then, the lambs were given “birth” from the external womb with no developmental defects and successful survival for the later years of study. Overall, the success rates for lamb fetuses in an artificial womb highlight the biobag’s capacity to reduce the morbidity of preterm babies (Partridge, 2017). Using the lamb as a model, scientists have greatly developed and identified three components that provide the external womb with the capabilities of a biological uterus. The artificial womb has a temperature-controlled bag that carries the preterm, an artificial placenta that provides blood flow for the baby, and an amniotic fluid pump that regulates the cycle of amniotic fluid that goes through the biobag. All three parts of the external womb must work similarly to the mother’s uterus for the preterm to survive long enough before birth can be given, which indicates that the machines are adjustable to match each baby and his/her mother (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia).
Despite the numerous benefits of artificial wombs for neonatal and pediatric medicine, the biobag concept still has many ethical barriers to pass, especially with regards to the abortion debate. The concept of putting a human in a bag certainly brings up many ethical arguments, including the notion that physicians would be detaining babies as inhuman products. Furthermore, just like any new technology, there are concerns about the effectiveness of external wombs for human preterm babies, so it’s plausible that many years of research and clinical trials will have to pass before the biobag is available for neonatal use in hospitals (Talpos, 2017). Another criticism of the biobag involves the emotional disruption that could occur in a family and a community while watching a fetus grow outside the mother, but this is an inevitability for this procedure that would be saving infant lives. An interesting prospect of artificial wombs is the equality that it establishes between the male and female parents during the process of gestation and birth (Talpos, 2017). After all, both parents would have control of their baby’s health and development rather than the mother having all the biological control because the baby would be in an environment accessible to both parents.
The most prominent effect that artificial womb technology is having on ethical debates is its support for the banning of abortion. The theory emphasizes the idea that babies would not need to die, but rather be transferred from the mother to an external sac. And then, the baby would be placed where it is most appropriate. This procedure of extractive abortion rather than terminative abortion is a popular idea as it not only dissolves the responsibility of the parents who do not desire a child but also saves the life of the baby (Kaczor, 2005). The introduction of artificial wombs to the abortion debate is new, so the effect of it on abortion would be dependent on the effectiveness of external wombs for preterm survival as well as the argumentative power of those who believe in AWT. Artificial wombs still have a long way to go before they are viable for human treatment, but once they are ready, they would have to clear multiple ethical debates before the biobags achieve their purpose of saving preterm infant lives.
Edited by Aidan Spradlin
Placed by Michael Namer
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