What if you could incubate human fetuses outside your own body? In, say, a nice safe machine, or a facility somewhere? We've wondered about this before. Artificial wombs could help us reintroduce cloned extinct species into the wild, or perhaps even help couples with fertility problems.
But what's the best way to create an artificial womb? What would be the road we'd have to go down to make it possible?
Never leave a couple of writers and a couple of scientists alone in a room. It takes very little time for them to get together and create a dystopian future. In this case, the scientists were Terry Johnson and Kyle Kurpinski, co-authors of How to Defeat Your Own Clone, and the writers were me and Annalee Newitz. After we had run out of things to say about Prometheus, we turned our attention to robots, bioengineered robots, bioengineered people, and finally, artificial wombs. Undoubtedly, the first of these wombs will be constructed for animals — since such experiments would be unconscionable on humans. But if someone were to cross that ethical line, and start creating artificial wombs for people, how would it happen?
When we think of artificial wombs, we think of items that are both comfortingly and off-puttingly industrial. Maybe a pod with both wires and biological blood vessels running into it. Perhaps something more contained, that looks like a spaceship. Or maybe something stripped down to the bare bones, basically a bucket full of goo with a developing fetus. Always, though, it's detached from a body.
But that would be horrifically hard to build. But on the other hand, it would be even more horrifically easy to deconstruct from a conscious and aware human body. Right now, we know that a biological human woman in perfect health is designed and able to gestate and give birth to a baby. What we don't know is how far we can walk health and biology backwards, before that ability goes away.
The first step to creating an artificial womb for a fetus would be to scale back the mental facilities of a human. You could start by looking at the handful of cases where women in comas have given birth. There are only a handful of cases worldwide of this happening. Usually they involve a pregnant woman being involved in some kind of accident during pregnancy. Few cases are found both, because it's an unusual occurrence on its own, and above and doctors often suggest termination of the pregnancy, since it puts a strain on the body that might further decrease the patient's chances of recovery. Still, there are cases of women who seemed nearly unresponsive to any outside stimulus giving birth after two, three, five, and even seven months in a coma. There was even one disturbing case of a woman, after ten years in a coma, being raped by a caregiver and giving birth to a healthy baby, having spent the entire pregnancy in a coma.
Taking at look at these cases, and the brain function levels of each of the women, and people could begin to see how little brain function a body has to have in order to carry a pregnancy. After that, it would be engineering bodies with minimal brain function — just enough to keep them alive, and making them incubators. The last step would be taking these bodies, and paring down limbs, extraneous body parts, and further brain function, disentangling what makes a person human from what makes them fertile, and taking away all of the former while leaving the latter, and coming up with an artificial gestation device.
Depending on what people found out during that pairing down to bare necessities, we might find the end product of this process as comfortingly sterile and inhuman as anyone could wish for. We might even, after all of it, emerge into a utopian future where everyone had access to safe and reliable birthing technology. But the cheapest, fastest, and most sure way there would, without a doubt, be a footpath through hell. No one in good conscience would ever do such a thing, we all decided. But what would you do to get to a better future? What would you sacrifice for such a medical technology? Someday, we'll probably find out.