Earlier this year, I talked about the promise of artificial wombs and how they could be the ultimate solution to abortion, gender inequality, and stretch marks. At a time when abortion laws are becoming increasingly controversial and people are protesting gender inequality in major cities, I think that promise is becoming increasingly important.
As it stands, though, the science behind artificial wombs is still very young. It may be one of those technologies that doesn’t get perfected within our lifetimes, but then again the pace of technology is wildly unpredictable. Remember, your smartphone is a million times more powerful than every computer at NASA in 1969. Technology can sneak up on us is what I’m saying.
Artificial wombs probably won’t advance at the same pace as smart phones, if only because they involve women’s body parts and we’re always a bit more careful/awkward when it comes to women’s body parts. However, that doesn’t keep the technology from advancing.
Just last month, doctors in Philadelphia were able to bring a premature lamb to term using a special fluid-filled bag that mimicked the conditions of a womb. The baby lamb was able to develop and eventually survive on its own outside the bag. By all accounts, the lambs developed normally.
It’s not a full-blown artificial womb, but it’s an important step. The lambs in this case weren’t entirely grown in the womb. They were placed in the bag just 105 days after conception, which is akin to a human fetus being 22 weeks into its 40-week gestation period.
That means that, if applied to humans, more prematurely-born infants could survive to term. On top of that, if there’s a complication with the mother’s health, she needs to only endure half a pregnancy before transferring the fetus to one of these units. Her life will be saved. The baby’s life will be saved. Given how many children die due to premature birth, this is a technology that could potentially save countless lives.
Then, as the technology improves, it will eventually reach the point where a child can develop entirely within an artificial womb. There’s no need for a woman to endure any pregnancy at all. The extent to which that would change our society, from gender issues to sexuality, cannot be overstated.
That technology is still a ways off, but we’re literally halfway there. Depending on how the pace of advancement will change, due to financial and regulatory pressures, it’s hard to say whether it’ll happen in my lifetime. However, it will happen. There’s just too much appeal to not having to endure nine months of pregnancy.
That leads me to a personal story that occurred recently while I was meeting with some family friends. It’s a story that highlights one of the biggest issues that artificial wombs would have and it has nothing to do with the technology.
Recently, a close relative of mine had a child. It was a joyous occasion for the entire family. I was certainly happy. I’ve had a chance to see that child grow it’s been a wonderful experience for everyone involved.
It has also led to a number of discussions about the rigors of pregnancy. Many women in my family have their share of stories about what it was like to grow another human inside them over a nine-month period. Some of those stories were funny. Some of them made me cringe in ways I usually reserve for a dentist appointment.
At one point in that discussion, though, I brought up artificial wombs. I asked them if they had the option of having their child, but without going through the rigors of pregnancy, would they do it? After the stories they described, I thought at least some would jump at the chance. However, none of them did.
It’s true. Every woman I asked said they would still endure nine months of hardship for their child. That surprised me because it hints at the mentality women feel when it comes to bearing their children. As uncomfortable and inconvenient as it is, they still go through it and would do it again for their children. That says a lot about a mother’s love.
It also hints that the prospect of using artificial wombs in lieu of pregnancy might not catch on, even after the technology is perfected. Even if an artificial womb is healthier, safer, and cheaper than natural birth, there may still be women who opt for the old fashioned way of baby-making.
This isn’t just someone who still opts to use a flip-phone over a smartphone. This is someone who is willing to put their bodies through a rigorous process that technology may very well make obsolete. What does that say about the human mindset, specifically those of women when they bear children?
Could this be a mentality that’s hardwired into our brains? Could this also be a product of people not keeping up with the times? Perhaps younger generations would be more willing to use an artificial womb over natural birth. Cultural attitudes may affect it as well. It may very well be the case that being a woman and not giving birth creates an identity crisis of sorts.
It’s hard to tell at the moment because the technology is so new. It hasn’t even been used on humans yet, but that is going to happen soon, if only to ensure that premature babies survive. After that, there may be a shift in cultural attitudes. If the technology advances rapidly, it may lead to genuine conflict. In that sense, maybe Aldous Huxley, was onto something when he wrote “Brave New World.”
Maybe my family is unique in their attitudes towards natural birth. Maybe this is a question that we’re not ready to answer yet. Maybe it’s one I’ll ask again at another family gathering, if only to see if their attitudes have changed.
Technology changes societies. Some incur more change than others, as the inventor of ski masks can attest. However, we’ve never had a technology that changes how we actually propagate our species. That puts artificial wombs in a special, uncharted territory. What it means for us and the children we bear remains to be seen.