Premature births happen more often than people are aware, and, if that is not unsettling enough, the fact that the chances of survival are critically low most certainly is.
Fortunately for us, scientists have been hard at work to find ways in which to combat this occurrence. In an experiment conducted in early 2017, researchers were able to keep a sheep fetus alive using an artificial womb. Something like that has never been previously recorded. The only issue is that this still does not mean much when it comes to premature birth in humans.
As fantastic as the possibility of artificial gestation in controlled surrounding sounds, scientists still caution against it. A plastic bag filled with fluid is nowhere near as good as the uterus within a woman’s body, which has been perfected during the course of our evolution.
Some scientists believe that ectogenesis, otherwise known as gestation without the womb, is a thing of the future. And the benefits are plain to see. Such a gestation is completely controlled and safer for the baby and for the mother. But more research is needed in order to understand what the potential pitfalls of something like this are. Babies have grown within the secure confines of the womb for as long as we know, and changing that may potentially have severe consequences on their development, both mentally and physically.
Sadly, the reality is that such technology is nowhere near the horizon. We still have to really on mothers to carry out that process. Additionally, the idea behind an artificial womb is not to replace natural pregnancies, but to help the ones that have any sort of difficulty. And when they were researching womb-less reproduction, the only wish was to find a way to raise the survival chances of babies born prematurely.
In the U.S, one in every 10 births is premature. Advancements in neonatal medicine have lessened the number of these cases, but they still exist. Especially critical are the births that occur at the 26-week mark. But even those babies have a 50 percent chance to survive. Unfortunately, those same babies have a morbidity rate of 90 percent, which means that somewhere down the line there is a chance that the babies still may die due to complications caused by the premature birth.
The babies that are born at 26 weeks need something to bridge the period between living in the mother’s womb and living in the outside world. This is where the artificial womb comes in. Basically, instead of sticking the infants into an incubator, the babies are placed into artificial wombs where the doctors can recreate similar conditions to those in natural ones. The entire process is much healthier and much more pleasant for the infant, in theory at least.
In order to test this out, scientists used baby sheep. They placed them into bags which contain ersatz amniotic fluid. This fluid contains all the necessary nutrients needed to keep the baby alive and free from infections. No pumps are used for the baby’s bodily functions and the only connection it has to its new surroundings is the umbilical cord.
This method has made significant strides since the early days. Previous versions were only able to keep fetuses alive for a few days at the most. Now an entire month passes as the lamb is placed into the womb. One lamb that was used in the study was able to survive for an entire year.
We are still years away from a permanent solution, but as stated above, even when perfected the system cannot replace natural gestation. The whole process of birth is much more than just gestation in the womb. The first few minutes are crucial during birth and they cannot be artificially reproduced.