Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are testing technology to “grow” babies inside an artificial womb. Will this mimicked womb be a staple in neonatal care units 10 years from now?
Most pregnancies are 40 weeks long; however, most babies can live outside the womb at around 24 to 26 weeks. More than half the states of this country ban abortion during this viable phase and beyond. (And at least 20 states have laws that ban abortion, with varying exceptions, at the 20-week gestation period.) This discussion deserves a nod to the pro-life movement — given that the newest invention will attempt to extend the viability of human life outside the womb at younger ages.
During thePhiladelphia hospital’s test process, premature lambs — at about the same development level as a 23- to 24-week gestation preemie human — grew and developed for one month in the hospital’s biobag, filled with amniotic fluid. At some point soon, in perhaps a few years, the growth of a human baby could be tested inside this contraption, which is designed to mimic a mother’s womb.
What happens when someone chooses not to bring the “viable” baby to full term and to essentially abort it?
The lambs tested were hooked up to a pumpless airway circuit and enclosed in a fluid environment.
“We show that fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to four weeks,” the researchers at the Philadelphia hospital wrote in the journal Nature Communications. “Lambs on support … have normal blood gas and oxygenation parameters and maintain patency of the fetal circulation.”
“With appropriate nutritional support, lambs on the system demonstrate normal somatic growth, lung maturation and brain growth and myelination,” the researchers wrote in their article, published in April 2017.
The technology was originally developed to help babies born prematurely. Preemie babies have an increased risk of complications.
The researchers in Philadelphia are trying to develop the technology to benefit babies at about the 23- and 24-week gestation stage.
“The idea is to bridge the rough patch when they are really struggling and carry them through to a point when they can do OK,” Emily Partridge, a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a video produced by the hospital. The video can be seen below.
As preemie care advances, the survival rate for these babies has increased over the past couple of decades.
“Although survival of extremely preterm infants has increased over the past two decades, including survival without major morbidity, the individual and survival burden of preterm birth remains substantial, with approximately 450,000 neonates born prematurely in the United States each year.” That’s according to an extensive research study published in 2015 titled “Trends in Care Practices, Morbidity, and Mortality of Extremely Preterm Neonates, 1993-2012.”
“To truly affect newborn outcomes, a comprehensive and sustained effort to reduce the high rates of preterm birth is necessary,” the study noted.
The advancements in medicine have helped improve the care for expectant mothers and premature babies.
“In the United States, extreme prematurity is the leading cause of infant morbidity and mortality, with over one-third of all infant deaths and one-half of cerebral palsy [cases] attributed to prematurity,” the researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explained their artificial womb system study. “Advances in neonatal intensive care have improved survival and pushed the limits of viability to 22 to 23 weeks of gestation.”
“However, survival has been achieved with high associated rates of chronic lung disease and other complications of organ immaturity, particularly in infants born before 28 weeks,” the researchers add.
Yet like most life science lab testings, the implications of this new artificial system raise legal and ethical questions.
“What happens when someone chooses not to bring the ‘viable’ baby to full term and to essentially abort it?” journalist Angelo Stagnaro wrote in the National Catholic Register several days ago. “Whatever the ‘right’ they claim to do so will obviously have nothing to do with a woman’s control over her body as there will be no woman’s body to be had. Instead, they might claim caveat emptor and ‘buyer’s remorse’ instead.”
Stagnaro noted that artificial-womb technology has been in the making for quite some time, despite failed attempts.
‘There have been many attempts at creating such a device over the years,” Stagnaro wrote. “They’ve all met with varying degrees of failure ever since the 1950s in Japan, Europe and the states. In fact, a 1996 New York Times Magazine story declared ‘the artificial womb exists,’ describing a Japanese lab experiment with baby goats.”
Stagnaro added, “However, the praises were premature, as the fetuses died of circulatory failure.”
Another question takes shape about the ethics of an artificial womb. What happens to the bond between mother and child if a baby grows outside the natural womb?
“And what of a child who is birthed independent of a mother?” Stagnaro wrote. “Will biological, genetic … and social relationships have to be redefined by the courts?”