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Weighing the Ethics of Artificial Wombs

Elizabeth Yuko
Photo Credit: Kevin P. Casey for The New York Times

Via The New York Times

With 3-D printing, lab-grown organs and lifelike prosthetic limbs, science creeps ever nearer to replicating the parts and functions of the human body.

But not pregnancy: Despite several attempts over the past 20 years, researchers have been largely unsuccessful at encouraging human gestation outside the womb, and important elements of the interaction between mother and fetus remain a profound mystery.

Recently, however, scientists announced that they had created an artificial womb in which lambs born prematurely grew for a month. Human testing is not expected for three to five years, if it is done at all.

But should an artificial womb succeed for premature infants, it could have far-reaching legal and ethical consequences.

The term “artificial womb” evokes a scene from “Brave New World”: external artificial uteri capable of the entire gestation process, from implantation to delivery. But that’s not what the recent animal trial accomplished, nor was that its goal.

Today, incubators sustain the life of a premature infant without continuing the gestation process. Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and his team used incubator technology to encourage continued development and growth in the premature lambs.

Dr. Flake emphasized that the goal of their work was “physiologic support” — that is, to replicate conditions in the uterus as closely as possible, keeping more premature babies alive and able to develop in better health.

People often hear about miracle babies who, despite being born prematurely and at an extremely low birth weight, overcome the odds to survive. In fact, negative outcomes are very likely among infants born before 23 weeks, the point of viability.

The mortality rate is greater than 50 percent, and they have a 70 to 90 percent likelihood of experiencing major complications, like cerebral palsy, mental impairment and blindness. Because survival rates are higher, there are now more children with health problems like these than there were a decade ago.

Even if extremely premature babies survive their time in the incubator, they may have lifelong impairments or conditions that require support, including physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

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