If it weren’t for the womb, not a single person on the planet today would exist. That’s not an exaggeration – that’s a cold, hard fact. The natural reproduction process is, in a way, the entire point of human existence. Female human beings carry the biological equipment to take the raw genetic material that outlines the blueprints for a human and actually creates a living person from it.
The reproductive system of a human female is a sophisticated and highly-advanced biological factory. It so complicated that it’s amazing so many humans are actually born in a survivable condition. Before the advent of modern medicine that certainly wasn’t the case. Childbirth has been fraught with danger for most of human history. Humans have one of the most dangerous childbirths in the animal kingdom.
Even today, the World Health Organization estimates that 830 women die in childbirth from preventable causes daily. That’s half of the number in 1990 and, thanks to economic development, the number is thankfully falling. So what if we could take complete control over the gestation and birthing process? What if we could build an artificial womb that made things safer for both mother and child?
Thinking Outside the Womb
A working artificial womb would change a lot of fundamental facts about human existence. The social and economic impact would be staggering; it is a technology that has the potential to improve the human condition significantly.
The biological burden of carrying children to term has shaped the way our society works. It’s a built-in, biological form of gender inequality. Pregnancy puts serious pressure on the careers of women. It plays a significant part in the career paths that women take. For many women the choice is to either pursue their careers or become pregnant to have a baby.
While mountains of law papers have been written to help balance out the social effects of pregnancy, a working artificial womb would eliminate the issue altogether. It would give women a choice about whether they wanted to carry a child themselves or have it gestate outside their bodies, leaving them to get on with their lives instead of putting them on hold.
It also means that, in combination with new genetic science, same-sex male couples could have babies as well.
Mother – Child Safety First
If artificial exo-wombs become feasible and practical, it may get to the point where it is the preferred method of gestation. External wombs would be safer not just for the mother, but also for the child.
Much of a child’s health and natural attributes depend on prenatal conditions – the sort of nutrition the mother has, how healthy she is, and whether she uses substances such as tobacco and alcohol. Without any special genetic manipulation at all, an external womb could make it much easier to ensure that the child received an absolutely optimal experience while forming. It goes without saying that an exo-womb also makes it possible to detect any birth defects early and allow for surgical or medicinal correction.
Combined with future genetic science it may even be possible to correct genetic anomalies as soon as they become apparent. Currently performing medical interventions on a fetus is incredibly risky and difficult, mainly because the mother’s safety and biology have to be taken into account as well. Exo-wombs would be designed to make access to the fetus as easy as possible.
Better and Better
Once you can reliably take a human embryo from conception to birth in a controlled artificial environment, you can start to do other things as well. One day we may see exo-womb children get fitted with brain-computer interface hardware early in their formation, perhaps in ways that are difficult or dangerous for an adult.
If or when exo-wombs become feasible, it could coincide with the most fundamental human augmentations we’ll ever see, but how close are we exactly?
Many of the most advanced economies in the world, where this sort of research has the best chance of successfully happening, legally require human embryos to be destroyed after about two weeks of gestation.
Back in 1995 when this limit was first imposed, it was unthinkable that a human embryo could be sustained for that long outside a uterus. These days, however, it’s a limit that scientists can hit reliably, but we don’t really know much of what’s possible beyond that.
While there are still some serious technical problems that need to be solved before we can create the real deal, most of the limitations on the research seem to be from public discomfort with the idea, and bioethical concerns.
Not too many people are actually working on the problem. One of the key researchers is Dr. Hung-Ching Liu. Although Liu’s research seems to have stalled of late, she made several major breakthroughs that helped cement the potential for exo-wombs to become reality.
Of Mice and Men
Dr. Liu has had several remarkable successes with her research. Liu is a fertility expert and her work naturally led up to the beginning of exo-womb technology. As far back as 2001 she and her team were trying to find ways to get embryos further developed, to both understand the process of initial implantation better and to get embryos further along in order to improve their chance of fertilization.
At first it didn’t work because the cell lining in her petri dish was too thin, but with continued work she was able to build it up layer by layer until implantation could happen. This is when she hit the legal limit for embryo development and had to terminate the experiment.
Those limits do not, however, apply to non-human animals. So she went ahead and tried to see how far she could get a mouse embryo to develop. She never actually published the results for fear of political and public reaction.
The results were staggering.
Dr. Liu’s first attempt almost made it all the way; much further than anyone expected. That particular mouse fetus displayed deformities that made it inviable, but when she transplanted mouse embryos that had a good start inside a real mouse uterus she could get them to develop all the way. They were smaller than usual, but not deformed in any way.
That’s where it’s ended for the time being since, in an interview with The Atlantic, Liu basically said that the social implications were too hot for her to handle.
Artificial Hot Potatoes
Dr. Liu is not wrong. If we look at the political and religious debates around stem cells, abortion, and genetic engineering, it may be a long time before we are ready to actually seriously pursue this line of research.
On a practical front, there are also many uses for this technology that are ethically dodgy. That’s true of any technology, but external wombs are more personal than atomic power.
If you remove the need for parents and essentially make it possible to mass produce people, there are a lot of ways to abuse the ability. Who has legal guardianship over a child if both parents are anonymous genetic donors? What about cloning? Will there be a future where one supreme physical and mental specimen of human is used to form armies or perform other specialized services?
Until the technology is really real, we won’t know for sure what the consequences, good or bad, will be.
The Uncertainty Principle
It may only be long after we are ready technologically that we are ready socially. So it’s a fool’s game to predict when artificial wombs will be a fact of life rather than something halfway into science fiction.
If and when exo-wombs do become a reality we can expect everything to change a lot; perhaps even in ways that we can’t foresee.