Earlier this year, scientists published a study that detailed the successful use of an artificial uterus to bring shark embryos to term. Once ‘birthed’ the shark pups showed no detrimental effects as a result of having gone through development in an artificial setting.
Research such as this ignites interest in the possibility of creating artificial wombs for the purpose of human reproduction. After all – artificial hearts, kidneys and lungs are all available and becoming increasingly sophisticated. It is surely only a matter of time before artificial wombs, capable of growing and developing a foetus outside the human body, are technologically feasible.
This raises the question of whether we should promote research aimed at shifting the location of foetal development to outside the human body. As a way of approaching some of the issues surrounding this prospect let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.
Imagine another world where a species exists which is identical to Humans in nearly every way – let’s call them Birmans. The major is difference between Humans and Birmans is evolutionary history. Rather than evolving from mammals, Birmans happened to have evolved from birds. As a result nearly all of the development and growth of Birman foetuses occurs outside their body in eggs. Now imagine Birman scientists are on the verge of developing an intervention which would make it feasible to shift the development of Birman foetuses from the external egg to inside their bodies in a womb. As a result of this development a group of Birman policy-makers discuss the possible costs and benefits of changing the location of foetal development to inside the body.
The first cost they identify is equality. Currently both Birman sexes have an equal role in the development of foetuses. This would be fundamentally changed if foetal development occurred inside the body. This is because, for physiological reasons, internal pregnancies would only be viable in females. Therefore all of the potential costs or benefits associated with nurturing a foetus inside the body would be available to just one sex.
The next set of concerns that the Birmans outline involves health and safety. An individual’s body would be changed significantly to accommodate a developing a foetus. Abdominal muscles would be separated, skin would be stretched, and extra strain would be placed on blood vessels. This would increase the risk of a range of mild health conditions and could cause long term damage to the muscles and skin.
More significantly – the birthing of the baby once it is fully developed would likely be difficult for some Birman women. The only way the fully developed foetus could leave the body without surgery is through the pelvis. However, as a result of evolutionary adaptations for bipedalism, the Birman pelvis is relatively small and the heads of Birman infants are relatively large. Therefore, birth is expected to be risky for some women and result in ongoing complications such as incontinence and internal tissue tearing. In fact scientists estimate that in approximately 15% of cases the baby would not be able to leave the body naturally and surgery would be required. This surgery would carry with it a small risk of paralysis and death for the mother.
The next concern identified by the Birmans involves liberty. Given foetuses are highly sensitive to disturbances, growing one inside someone’s body would restrict that individual’s ability to engage in a range of activities. For instance, a pregnant woman would not be able engage in very strenuous exercise, play certain sports, drink much caffeine or alcohol, or take certain medications – without endangering the foetus. Hormone changes at the beginning of pregnancy would sometimes result in nausea, and the extra energy requirements toward the end of pregnancy would lead to lethargy. Hence, for the 9 months while the foetus was developing, significant liberty constraints would be placed on individuals.
The final cost of internal pregnancies that the Birman identify is the safety of the foetus. Some individuals would be unlikely to stop themselves from consuming drugs and alcohol while the foetus is developing, and this could result in permanent damage. In fact it is estimated that if the intervention was widespread, individuals drinking alcohol while pregnant would become one of the leading causes of developmental problems in Birman children. The birth is also expected to be risky for Birman infants. Nerve damage, infections, and dystocia are all possible complications associated with birth from an internal pregnancy.
When considering the possible benefits of moving foetal development to inside the body, some postulate that it would increase the bond between the child and their mother. While this is a possible benefit, the extent to which a child would be more bonded to a mother as a result of an internal pregnancy is unclear. Some note that often parents who are not biologically related to their children are able to form strong bonds with them.
In this hypothetical scenario, Birman policy-makers would likely decide against endorsing research aimed at moving foetal development inside their bodies. Given the potential costs outlined above, we wouldn’t expect creatures with our biological characteristics to choose to develop their foetuses inside their bodies if this wasn’t their ‘natural’ mode of development. This suggests some reasons why we should encourage research into artificial wombs. The reason that human foetuses develop inside the body of their mothers is evolutionary history – we have evolved from a long line of species who nurtured their young internally. While this probably made sense for the first placental mammals, humans today are very different from these ancestors. We walk on two legs, have large brains, and don’t need to worry about predators eating eggs containing our young. For creatures with the characteristics of modern humans, growing babies outside the body may be a practical and sensible option.