‘Parents can look at their foetus in real time’: are artificial wombs the future?

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Scientists are currently pushing on an ethical boundary. Will out of body gestation ever replace the experience of human birth?

The lamb is sleeping. It lies on its side, eyes shut, ears folded back and twitching. It swallows, wriggles and shuffles its gangly legs. Its crooked half-smile makes it look content, as if dreaming about gambolling in a grassy field. But this lamb is too tiny to venture out. Its eyes cannot open. It is hairless; its skin gathers in pink rolls at its neck. It hasn’t been born yet, but here it is, at 111 days’ gestation, totally separate from its mother, alive and kicking in a research lab in Philadelphia. It is submerged in fluid, floating inside a transparent plastic bag, its umbilical cord connected to a nexus of bright blood-filled tubes. This is a foetus growing inside an artificial womb. In another four weeks, the bag will be unzipped and the lamb will be born.

When I first see images of the Philadelphia lambs on my laptop, I think of the foetus fields in The Matrix, where motherless babies are farmed in pods on an industrial scale. But this is not a substitute for full gestation. The lambs didn’t grow in the bags from conception; they were taken from their mothers’ wombs by caesarean section, then submerged in the Biobag, at a gestational age equivalent to 23-24 weeks in humans. This isn’t a replacement for pregnancy yet, but it is certainly the beginning.

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