The end of pregnancy
Within a generation there will be probably be mass use of artificial wombs to grow babies
Jeremy Rifkin guardian.co.uk
Thursday January 17, 2002
“The womb is a dark and dangerous place,a hazardous environment,” wrote the late Joseph Fletcher, professor of medical ethics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
These words have haunted me over the years and have come back to me again in recent weeks, with talk of the imminent prospect of cloning a human being and using embryonic stem cells to create specific body parts to cure diseases.
As shocking as these developments have been, there is still another biological bombshell waiting in the wings – and this one provides the context for all the others and changes forever our concept of human life.
Researchers are working to create a totally artificial womb. Several weeks ago,a team of scientists from Cornell University’s Weill Medical College announced that they had succeeded, for the first time, in creating an artificial womb lining. The scientific team,led by Dr Hung Chiung Liu of the Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, stimulated cells to grow into uterine lining, using a cocktail of drugs and hormones. The goal of the research is to help infertile couples by creating an entire womb which could be transplanted into a woman.
Yosinori Kuwabara and his colleagues, working in a small research laboratory at Juntendou University in Tokyo,are developing the first operational artificial womb – a clear plastic tank the size of a bread basket, filled with amniotic fluid stabilised at body temperature.For the past several years, Kuwabara and his team have kept goat foetuses alive and growing for up to 10 days by connecting their umbilical cords to two machines that serve as a placenta, pumping in blood, oxygen and nutrients and disposing of waste products. While the plastic womb is still only a prototype, Kuwabara predicts that a fully functioning artificial womb capable of gestating a human foetus may be a reality in less than six years.Others are more sceptical, but say we will probably see the mass use of artificial wombs by the time today’s babies become parents.
Artificial wombs will most likely first be used as intensive care units for foe- tuses in cases where either the mother is ill and can no longer carry the child or where the foetus is ill and needs to be removed from the mother’s womb and cared for where it can be easily monitored. We can already keep foetuses alive in incubators during the last three months of gestation. And researchers routinely fertilise eggs and keep embryos alive in vitro for the first three to four days of their existence before implanting them in a womb. Scientists like Kuwabara are attempting to fill in the time between the beginning and end of the gestation process – the critical period where the foetus develops most of its organs.
Eventually, say many scientists working in the new field of foetal molecular biology, being able to grow a foetus in a totally artificial womb would make it easier to make genetic corrections and modifications – creating designer babies. The artificial womb may even become the preferred means of producing a child. Women could have their eggs removed and men their sperm taken in their teen years when they are most viable and kept frozen until they are ready to have a child. Mothers could spare themselves the rigours and inconveniences of pregnancy, retain their youthful figures and bring the baby home when “done”.
Far fetched? Thousands of surrogate mothers’ wombs have already been used to gestate someone else ‘s fertilised 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 process.
Of course, many women, when asked, say they would prefer to have the experience of being pregnant and having the baby in their own womb. But their expectations might represent the dying sensibilities of the old order. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the “normal” people were genetically designed, cloned and gestated in artificial wombs – a biological assembly line process churning out ideal genotypes. Only the savages living in the remote reservations still carried their own babies in their bodies and breastfed them after birth. The practice was considered disgusting and something only animals did.
In the Brave New World, erotic sexual activity is encouraged and freely practised but completely divorced from the process of reproduction. Huxley wrote his novel in 1932, before the contraceptive pill had arrived. By the 1970s, however, sex and reproduction had branched into two separate realms, thanks, in large part, to the pill. It is also interesting to note that the pill made its debut at about the same time that researchers first began to use artificial insemination on a wide scale. While the pill revolutionised sex, removing it from the process of reproduction, artificial insemination, then later in vitro fertilisation, egg donation, surrogacy and, soon, cloning further separate the components of reproduction from the biological act of mating. The artificial womb completes the process.
Yet it raises troubling questions. We know that a foetus responds to the mother’s heartbeat, as well as her emotions, moods and movements. A subtle and sophisticated choreographic bond exists between the two and plays a critical role in the development of the foetus. What kind of child will we produce from a liquid medium inside a plastic box? How will gestation in a chamber affect the child ‘s motor functions and emotional and cognitive development? We know that young infants deprived of human touch and bodily contact often are unable to develop the full range of human emotions and sometimes die soon after birth or become violent, sociopathic or withdrawn later in life.
How will the elimination of pregnancy affect the concept of parental responsibility? Will parents feel less attached to their offspring? Will it undermine the sense of generational continuity that is so essential for reproducing and maintaining historical continuity and civilised life?
How will the end of pregnancy affect the way we think about gender and the role of women? Some feminists argue that it will finally mean liberation. Years ago the feminist writer Shulamith Firestone wrote enthusiastically about the prospect of an artificial womb: “Pregnancy is the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species.Moreover,childbirth hurts and isn’t good for you. At the very least, development of an option should make possible an honest examination of the ancient value of motherhood.”
Other feminists view the artificial womb as the final marginalisation of women, robbing them of their primary role as progenitor of the species. The artificial womb, they argue, becomes the quintessential expression of male dominance, a way to create a mechanical substitute of the female womb. Armed with the artificial womb, asexual cloning technology and stem cells to produce all the extra body parts they need, men could free themselves, once and for all, from their dependency on women.
The artificial womb represents the completion of an even longer historic process that began nearly 400 years ago at the dawn of the scientific age. It was Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, who referred to nature as “a common harlot”. He urged future generations to “tame, squeeze, mould” and “shape” her so that “man could become her master and the undisputed sovereign of the physical world”. No doubt some will see the artificial womb as the final triumph of modern science. Others, the ultimate human folly.
Many people will likely say, why worry? Surely the artificial womb is far off on the horizon. Five years ago,we thought the same thing about human cloning and using stem cells to produce body parts.
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century (Gollancz)and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC
Source | Guardian Unlimited