Extreme prematurity is the leading cause of neonatal mortality and morbidity due to a combination of organ immaturity and iatrogenic injury. Until now, efforts to extend gestation using extracorporeal systems have achieved limited success.
Here we report the development of a system that incorporates a pumpless oxygenator circuit connected to the fetus of a lamb via an umbilical cord interface that is maintained within a closed ‘amniotic fluid’ circuit that closely reproduces the environment of the womb. [my emphasis] Nature
There have been several articles about this study – I’ve quoted the abstract. Don’t you love science-y phrases? Extracorporeal systems – so specific. Take a look at the pictures on the link – both creepy and fascinating.
As the authors say, in the past “advances in neonatal intensive care have improved survival and pushed the limits of viability to 22 to 23 weeks of gestation,” but at the cost of complications and permanent disabilities.
This current achievement is amazing – using lamb fetuses, researchers got one to survive and grow with normal lung and brain development. Not all the fetuses did so well – there’s a lot of work to do before this device can be used on humans.
But that’s coming.
That’s the report from science – but what about public policy regarding contraception, women’s rights, and abortion?
This issue has been creeping up on us for decades. The once traditional notion that a fetus became a person when it quickened in the womb (an event that the mother needed no technology to discover) has long since been replaced by various measures of viability with various degrees of scientific support. Such hair-splitting will disappear when an artificial womb is developed – if not from the research quoted above, than from others. And soon.
Science may inform the debate, but it can’t solve our policy problems. Now is the time to discuss what we, as a society, should do. I don’t want to chase the threshold for abortion backwards through pregnancy. All that will do is entrench and enrage existing opinions.
There’s a lot to think about:
- Artificial wombs will, no doubt, be very expensive – should society (you, me, taxpayers) take on the cost of fulfilling an unwanted pregnancy?
- Are people willing to accept that different religious beliefs mean some women will choose to abort fetuses that others hold sacred? My guess is – no. If you believe you’re witnessing murder, how can you let it go?
- If using drugs to end pregnancies becomes cheap, easy and private (and with a little googling we on the Mexican border can figure that out today), is that acceptable for us all?
To me, the answer is better contraception. We have some excellent techniques available – I especially like implants that do not require daily pills. Make your decision once, thoughtfully, and heat-of-the-moment pressure is gone. It’s the usage that lags.
I don’t know if we could agree to let the government encourage such treatments – I’d approve, including to make all contraception free and available to minors without parental permission – but a lot of people will object. I suspect some of the objections have to do with religious and moral views of sex – but perhaps everyone could be persuaded to allow their fellow citizens to choose to go to hell.
Rather than condemn each other, let’s work together to develop an approach we can all accept. No one wants to see unwanted babies. They are a tragedy for themselves, their mothers (it’s usually the mothers who bear the burden), and the future. If you can’t work up empathy for people caught in this dilemma, follow enlightened self-interest: Freakonomics shows that “legalizing abortion in the 1970s prevented the birth of over a million children a year who would have grown up in circumstances that lead them into crime.”
If the focus is pro-child, we can find a way forward before science forces the issue.