The news that premature lambs have grown healthily to term in the most sophisticated incubator to date is considered exciting by many. The lambs used in the development and trials of the device, in which they could be supported for up to four weeks, were the equivalent of an extremely premature human foetus, at 22 to 24 weeks into gestation.
This type of technology offers the most plausible chance yet for the possibility that an artificial womb may yet become a reality – a device in which an embryo might be brought to full term. Over the years scientists wary of the ethical tangles involved have become silent (or been silenced) on its creation. The researchers behind the Biobag have been similarly clear that their goal is not to use it to push back the current limits of when a foetus can survive outside the human womb. But the idea of babies carried to term “outside of woman” is no dystopian vision, and neither is it fanciful in motivation or practicality.
If an artificial womb is created, it will mean that women will be freed from the dangers of pregnancy, and create a more equal distribution of “labour”, with women able to work throughout gestation. It will also give men an essential tool to have a child entirely without a woman, should they choose. It will ask us to question concepts of gender and parenthood.
Nonetheless, a fully functional artificial womb will undoubtedly present entirely new ethical dilemmas, including some we may not yet be ready to negotiate. But it could offer, at least, solutions to inequalities that we find intractable today.