Chinese researchers claim to have built an artificial womb that could carry an artificial pregnancy.

Some media are reporting a research study published in the Chinese “Journal of Biomedical Engineering”, conducted by researchers from the Suzhou Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology in China. The team claim to have built an artificial womb that can simulate the functions of the maternal uterus in humans, although the experiments carried out to date have been with rats, given the ethical limits established for experimentation with human embryos (see here).

While the aforementioned report refers to a technique aimed at future replacement of the maternal uterus in human pregnancy using this device, which would provide the embryo with the same conditions as a natural pregnancy, this does not seem to be the object of the finding.

According to the study sponsors, the aim is to design a system that will increase the likelihood of sequelae-free survival in very premature infants. These are babies born around week 24 of pregnancy whose chances of staying alive without suffering serious defects are limited, despite the great progress in perinatal intensive medicine that allows many of them to develop into healthy children.

Previous experiments have been conducted in this area using lambs, and also aim to develop substitute wombs in cases of very premature babies, improving their sequelae-free survival (see more).

However, to say, based on this latest work, that the possibility of replacing human pregnancy “with no need for a mother” is imminent, as the aforementioned newspaper states, is going too far.

Pregnancy — and specifically human pregnancy — is a very complex process, and many of its biological mechanisms and processes are still unknown. What is talked about in these trials is prolonging the uterine environment in very premature infants to allow them a degree of maturation that improves their chances of survival without sequelae; this is very different to promoting pregnancy from the initial stages of embryonic development, something much more complex and which, at present, does not seem likely to occur in the coming years.

Bioethical assessment

As we already indicated at the time with respect to the development of artificial placentas tested using lambs, intended for very premature infants, this finding is excellent scientific and ethical news, because it may contribute to the survival and health of these newborns when the technique is definitively applicable in humans, which has not yet occurred. The same could be said of the aforementioned experiment, which would be nothing more than an advance in those artificial placentas of 5 years ago, constituting an artificial environment more similar to a uterus that could be more effective in supporting the maturational development of extremely premature babies.

But to claim that this is a step to “liberate women from pregnancy” and “increase fertility rates” in environments at risk of demographic collapse as is happening in China and first world countries, because it would allow “individuals to be artificially produced” in an industrialized process, is to stray from the scientific evidence, from common sense of the limits of ethical acceptability.

Regardless of the technical difficulties that a supposed entire artificial pregnancy would imply, which are impossible to resolve today and in the coming years, it should be added that pregnancy is much more than the biological support and nutrition of an embryo or fetus. The interaction between the pregnant mother and her child during pregnancy goes much further and involves immunological, metabolic, genetic and psychological factors that shape the baby and its mother, as has been shown in some studies on changes in women’s brains after pregnancy, in addition to the genetic exchanges between the pregnant woman and her child during pregnancy, which are still not well known (see here).

Some developments presented as scientific advances conceal serious risks of setbacks for humanity. This could be one such case, when an attempt is made to misrepresent an instrument designed to preserve the life and improve the health of very premature infants by presenting it as an alternative to natural pregnancy, which would not contribute at all, for the reasons given, to the overall health of the nasciturus and its mother.

 

Julio Tudela

Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia

 

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