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Artificial wombs may help extremely premature babies

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Published: 8 June 2017 (GMT+10)

circuit-system-components

UA/UV Biobag system design. Circuit and system components consisting of a pumpless, low-resistance oxygenator circuit, a closed fluidenvironment with continuous fluid exchange and an umbilical vascular interface.
Credit: Partridge, E. A. et al. Click for larger view.

Every year hundreds of thousands of babies are born prematurely worldwide. Premature birth is the leading cause of death (other than abortion) for babies, with many others going on to develop a range of lifelong disabilities. A team of doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has developed a new form of artificial womb specifically for babies in the extreme preterm stage, which may prevent some of those deaths or disabilities from occurring.1

An artificial womb

Researchers showed that lamb foetuses between 105–115 days old, a level of development comparable to a 23-week-old human, could be supported in the artificial womb for a period of up to four weeks. During that time the lambs developed normally, including growing coats of white wool. The researchers hope to be able to try the new technology on human babies in just a few years’ time. This would mean that babies born in the crucial 23–25 week stage of their development may be placed into a specially made polyethylene bag filled with laboratory-replicated amniotic fluid. The study pointed out that, “Respiratory failure [in premature babies] represents the most common and challenging problem”. It was also explained that, babies who are hooked up to this apparatus would need to be delivered by C-section, as is currently the case for 60 percent of extreme preterm babies. During the operation, the baby would be given a drug that would prevent it from taking gulps of air during its brief brush with the outside world. Within seconds, it would be submerged again inside the polyethylene bag, just like it was in the womb, to help it gestate for another month inside the artificial womb.

Seeing the miracle of a human child in this fashion would only add weight to the long list of current scans and 4D imagery which clearly assert the baby’s undeniable individual humanity.

Fearfully and wonderfully made

One of the paper’s authors, Dr Emily Partridge, shared in a video that accompanied the research that, “It never fails to strike me what a miracle it is to see this fetus that is clearly not ready to be born enclosed in this fluid space breathing, swallowing, swimming, dreaming.”2 While Dr Partridge was referring to the lambs she had viewed, how much more true would that be had she seen a human baby inside an artificial womb? Seeing the miracle of a human child in this fashion would only add weight to the long list of current scans and 4D imagery which clearly assert the baby’s undeniable individual humanity; an individual humanity with intrinsic value, established by the fact that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

Partridge, E. A. et al.

lamb-cannulated

UA/UV Biobag system design. (left) Representative lamb cannulated at 107 days of gestation and on day 4 of support. (right) The same lamb on day 28 of support illustrating somatic growth and maturation. Click for larger view.

Moral issues

At first glance some Christians might baulk at the idea of this new technology. Of course it would be preferable for the baby to stay inside its own mother’s womb during the course of a pregnancy, and the artificial womb is not meant to be an alternative under normal circumstances. The technology is also not designed for babies to be created in the artificial wombs and solely raised there. Rather, the reason the technology works is because it has been applied to a particular stage of baby development, a 23-week human equivalent. So it is not designed for ‘test tube’ babies to be brought up and developed in, something which would definitely be a step in the wrong direction (You can read more about Cloning, Stem Cells, and Reproductive Technology Questions and Answers here).

Such an incredible medical advance for extremely premature babies is an example of medical doctors helping those who live in a fallen world, in line with Jesus’ example. So much of what we read in the Gospels is Jesus alleviating the physical pain and ailments of those suffering from the effects of the curse (Genesis 3). Indeed, there are numerous personal healings by Jesus recorded in the gospels. While this technology can be viewed in the same light, it should be noted that “[F]rom within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21), and that later applications of the technology could lead to morally reprehensible actions in which a baby’s intrinsic value is not appreciated and the Creator’s right over life violated.

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Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Partridge, E.A. et al., An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb, Nat. Commun. 8:15112, 2017 | doi:10.1038/ncomms15112. Return to text.
  2. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Recreating the womb: Q&A with the researchers, youtube.com, 25 April 2017. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
David L., United States, 9 June 2017

Regarding Alan S's question--no human would determine that a baby would be born prematurely. There are various diseases and conditions that lead to premature labor/birth. Everyone acknowledges that it's far preferable that a baby remain in the uterus until term. The artificial womb is only meant to improve the chances of saving the lives of babies born prematurely within the ~23-27 week window as compared with current technology in wide use.

Secondly, I found it quite interesting that in the YouTube video mentioned in the references to the article, that the researchers said that every technical problem they had in the project was overcome by mimicking what "nature" has already done. Like we see in many other scientific fields, these researchers have drawn inspiration from what God has already designed & put into place.

Mary W., United States, 8 June 2017

What a blessing for premature babies; however, my fear is that this would be seized upon to clone people. what about hybrids? This would be perfect. Too much talk of bringing back extinct creatures. No more incubating in a live animal. Gives pause, doesn't it?

Philip Robinson responds

Yes, there are a lot of people who are also concerned about these things and a number of articles on creation.com pick up on these topics. Thankfully this technology does not allow for these things just yet. If you would like to read more about Human cloning see here.

Bill P., United States, 8 June 2017

It is good to see that someone is at least trying to come up with ways to save an infant human instead of trying to find new ways to destroy them. I will pray that this will work and be used for the good of those who love their children.

Alan S., United Kingdom, 8 June 2017

A question rather than a comment: how would it be determined that a baby would be born prematurely and needs to be delivered by C-section and placed in the artificial womb rather than being left to develop to full-term?

Philip Robinson responds

Good question! As pointed out in the final paragraph there are a number of moral questions that would need to be addressed should the technology be pushed further than what has been described in this article. Speaking as a father who has three children who were all born prematurely by C-section there were very obvious medical complications that necessitated such a method of delivery in each case. The designers of this new technology have been clear in what they have produced so far that it would only be used on babies for which medical intervention is a necessity. However, like any technology, it would potentially be open to abuse in the future. That is why the promotion of a Biblical worldview on these matters, showing the intrinsic value of each human, is so important.

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