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Evolution's Pregnant Pause: Artificial Wombs

January 21, 2002|JEREMY RIFKIN | Jeremy Rifkin, who is the author of "The Biotech Century" (Tarcher Putnam, 1998), is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C.

"The womb is a dark and dangerous place, a hazardous environment," the late Joseph Fletcher, professor of medical ethics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, wrote 25 years ago. "We would want our potential children to be where they can be watched and protected as much as possible," Fletcher said.

These words came back to me in recent weeks with talk of the prospect of cloning a human being and of using embryonic stem cells to create specific body parts to cure or alleviate diseases.

But another biological bombshell is waiting in the wings, one that would forever change our concept of human life: the possibility of an artificial womb so that, theoretically, tomorrow's babies could be grown in laboratories.

Yet the prospect of an artificial womb raises troubling questions. One example: We know that the developing fetus responds to the mother's heartbeat, emotions, moods and movements. What kind of child would we produce from a liquid medium inside a plastic box? Do we risk producing beings who are unable to emotionally connect and be fully human?

These and other important practical, moral and ethical questions must be addressed before we let science move ahead willy-nilly. However, there may be no way to stop it.

Several weeks ago, a team of Cornell University scientists announced that it had succeeded in creating an artificial womb lining using a cocktail of drugs and hormones.

The goal of the research, led by Dr. Hung Chiung Liu of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, is to help infertile couples by creating an entire womb that could be transplanted into a woman.

Halfway around the world, working in a small research laboratory at Juntendou University in Tokyo, Yosinori Kuwabara and his colleagues are developing the first operational artificial womb--a clear plastic tank the size of a bread basket filled with body-temperature amniotic fluid.

For the past several years, Kuwabara and his team have kept goat fetuses growing for up to 10 days in this womb by connecting the goats' umbilical cords to machines that serve as a placenta, pumping in blood, oxygen and nutrients and disposing waste products.

While the plastic womb is still only in development, Kuwabara predicts that a fully functioning artificial womb capable of gestating a human fetus may be a reality in less than six years.

Other scientists say we will probably see the mass use of artificial wombs by the time today's babies become parents.

Artificial wombs will likely first be used in cases where either the mother can no longer carry the child or where the fetus needs to be cared for in an environment where it can be easily monitored.

We already can keep fetuses alive in incubators during the last three months of gestation. And researchers routinely fertilize eggs and keep embryos alive in vitro for three to four days before implanting them in a woman's womb.

Scientists such as Kuwabara are attempting to fill in the time between the beginning and end of the gestation process--the critical period during which the fetus develops most of its organs.

Eventually, being able to grow a fetus in a totally artificial womb would make it easier to make genetic corrections and modifications, thus creating "designer babies."

The artificial womb could even become the preferred means of producing a child. Young women could have their eggs removed when the eggs are most viable.

Ditto for men's sperm. Parenthood would thus become an option at any time using petri dishes and artificial wombs.

Mothers could thus spare themselves the rigors and inconveniences of pregnancy and bring their babies home when "done."

Farfetched? Thousands of surrogate mothers' wombs already have been used to gestate someone else's fertilized embryos. The artificial womb seems the next logical step in a process that has increasingly removed reproduction from traditional maternity and made of it a laboratory-conceived, commercial process.

Remember Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," in which the "normal" people were genetically designed, cloned and gestated in artificial wombs--a biological assembly line process churning out ideal genotypes?

In Huxley's book, Mustapha Mond, one of the 10 world "controllers" of this utopian civilization, asks his young proteges to try to imagine "what it was like to have a viviparous mother"--one who bears a fetus in her own womb. Only the savages living in the remote reservations far away from civilized life still carried their own babies and breast-fed them after birth. The practice was considered something only animals did.

When Huxley wrote his novel in 1932, the contraceptive pill had not yet arrived on the scene. The pill revolutionized sex, removing it from the process of reproduction.

Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, egg donation, surrogacy and, soon, cloning are further separating the components of reproduction from the biological act of mating. The artificial womb completes the process.

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