“It may sound far-fetched, but a breakthrough in Israel has brought us a step closer to creating artificial wombs for humans”

In life sciences, one of the medical and bioethical topics of major interest is pregnancy and its implications: unwanted pregnancies, female and male fertility, abortion, preterm children, etc. Some of these issues frequently present objective bioethical problems that we have addressed on several occasions on our website.

Artificial wombs advances present a new great bioethical problem

In this respect, a shocking article recently published in The Guardian (March 25, 2021) caught our attention. With the title Reproduction without pregnancy: would it really emancipate women?, the author conducts a rigorous review of current advances in biomedical research and evaluates the global investment in this line of research and some possible consequences of this practice in the future (read HERE).

The article was based on a study published last month in Nature (March 17), in which researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science successfully gestated more than 100 mice inside an artificial womb (read HERE). They grew the embryos for 11 days – the mid-point of a mouse pregnancy – outside their mothers’ bodies; these developed into viable embryos.

The new achievement in artificial wombs advances in mammals

The mice were no bigger than sunflower seeds but their hearts “pounded steadily” at 170 beats per minute. It is not the first time that scientists have experimented with artificial wombs using animals, obtaining encouraging results. “In 1992, Japanese researchers had some success growing goats inside rubber sacs. In 2017, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) revealed they had grown lamb fetuses in plastic bags from the equivalent of around halfway through a typical ewe pregnancy to full term. In 2019, Dutch researchers received a €2.9m (£2.6m) grant from the EU to develop an artificial womb that would use replicas of human babies dotted with sensors before being deployed in hospitals”, says the article.

The author continues with the opinions of specialists on the subject, reporting that this breakthrough is a major step towards reproduction outside women’s wombs (reproduction without pregnancy).

The full replacement for pregnancy may be decades away, but right now there is the process of getting the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve trials of its “bio bags” to replicate the human womb. In the future, reports the author, “[t]he obstacles to growing humans outside of the women body will be ethical and legal, not technological”.

The Guardian author’s digression about possible human reproduction outside womb

The author then digresses with the statement “An artificial womb would mean a complete reproductive parity between the sexes: all anyone needs to do is throw in their gametes and the rest is taken care of (our emphasis) [the woman would not have to go through pregnancy with its eventual complications]. But this equality could come at a great cost to women. This is a radically disruptive technology, and with each new development we are sleepwalking into a world of tough ethical choices.” We are surprised by the absence of any reference to the most significant difficulty of this eventual practice, namely depriving mother and child of the mutual enormous complex physiological relationship between them, which is critical for proper development of the unborn, an issue we have addressed on our website (Read our articles, Maternal bond, and Maternal-fetal dialogue. Fetal cells cross to the mother via the placenta and affect her physiological functions.

In our opinion, the future of a reproductive process outside the womb of women, in order to be feasible, requires further research and clinical trials, given the particular process of reproduction in humans and the current lack of understanding of several aspects of this development, despite rapid advances in embryology in recent decades. From a bioethical perspective, if it is possible the practice would have objective ethical problems.

Read related article HERE.