A not-so-science-fiction reproductive option

Blake is currently a first year Pre-Human Biology and Society major and Communications Director of GlobeMed (he even posted this blog). Fun fact: he can make an origami dragon.

Recently, researchers have successfully transferred a fetal lamb to a “bio-bag” – an artificial womb, or bag, that mimics a uterus well enough to allow the fetus to continue growing until it is full term. The idea behind the research on ex-uterine gestation is to eventually be able to transfer pre-mature human babies to an artificial womb to prevent further complications in the fetus’s development. Ideally, the “bio bag” would house the fetus until it is developed to a full nine months while providing a perfectly regulated environment for the fetus to grow and develop, thus removing much of a mother’s role in reproduction.

Researchers believe that after just two years, they will have enough animal studies completed to be able to test these fake wombs on human babies. While this type of research could be life-saving for many pre-mature fetuses, there are still many ethical considerations to think about. What does this mean for females and their reproductive options? Will this eventually lower the age of viability, and what would that do to the debate on abortion? Does this research violate the principles of medical ethics? What would happen further enough down the road? Would it eventually be accepted as the only rational mode of reproduction?

First off, the reasoning why the research is being framed around is interesting to me. It is framed around the idea that the research will help premature babies survive, rather than presenting a reproductive option for women to have more of a choice in their reproduction. Instead of carrying a baby to full term and giving natural birth, women may want to have their fetus grown in a bag so they don’t have to deal with being pregnant. This perspective is not taken into consideration when evaluating the reasons for this research.

Saving babies is an easy cause to get behind. Much of the funding for this type of research comes from pro-life organizations, which makes sense considering they would be able to essentially save the lives of fetuses. However, researchers still claim that the intent is not to lower the age of viability. Yet, this is a very real possibility for this type of science. If we can successfully gestate a fetus outside of the womb, what is stopping us from eventually pushing back the age that the fetus can be transferred, thus being able to gestate a fetus to term starting immediately after fertilization? The pro-choice debate is currently framed on the viability of the fetus and the laborious role the woman plays in reproduction. When you essentially detach the woman from reproduction while simultaneously lowering the age of viability, what strength does the pro-choice movement have anymore? Instead of getting an abortion, one could just transfer the already developing fetus to an artificial womb so that the mother would not have to carry it to term. This is a difficult question to answer, and one that researchers tend to avoid. Do they have a certain responsibility to prevent pushing back the age of viability? Just as well, do they have a responsibility to push back the age of viability?

Ultimately, I think this research is great. While likely to be insanely expensive, it has the potential to give more reproductive options to mothers, same-sex couples, and infertile couples that are not able to have a child on their own. For those who view a female’s role in reproduction too laborious, it has the possibility to free her from her reproductive biology. It can play a role in promoting equality between men and women.

Further enough down the road, while it sounds like a science fiction novel, this may be the most widely accepted choice for reproduction. Imagine a future where babies are grown solely in bags hanging from the ceiling, wires tangled and machines beeping. Each baby is born from perfectly measured nutritional conditions. Women and men play equal roles in reproduction. What would this mean for gender roles?


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