This idea may seem like it was lifted straight out of science fiction; ectogenesis, the process of growing a baby in an artificial womb. However, technological advances have made this a very real possibility in the near future. In 2017, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia managed to keep lamb fetuses alive in “bio-bags” – nutrient rich bags of fluid – for 4 weeks.
The key to functional ectogenesis is reproducing the conditions inside the womb as closely as possible. Much research is already ongoing in this direction, as scientists approach the problem in two directions; how to keep embryos alive as long as possible before implantation, and how to keep fetuses viable in progressively earlier deliveries. When these two approaches meet in the middle, we may be on the way to a truly functional artificial womb, capable of growing a fully developed human.
The consequences of developing such a technology are enormous. It poses a plethora of new issues to tackle – will this become a new advantage for the privileged? How will insurance approach these new developments? What new dimensions will we have to think about on abortion rights? Nonetheless, the potential for good is equally powerful. Gender equality would advance as parental roles are equalized. New opportunities for genetic parenthood would be opened for gay and trans individuals. It may also provide a safer alternative for traditional pregnancy by eliminating risks posed by external factors such as nutritional imbalances or drug usage. The potential of such technology is immense, and the many transformative changes it could have in society highlight the need to have discussions about it before it arrives.