The artificial womb exists. In Tokyo, researchers have developed a technique called EUFI — extrauterine fetal incubation. They have taken goat fetuses, threaded catheters through the large vessels in the umbilical cord and supplied the fetuses with oxygenated blood while suspending them in incubators that contain artificial amniotic fluid heated to body temperature.
Yoshinori Kuwabara, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Juntendo University in Tokyo, has been working on artificial placentas for a decade. His interest grew out of his clinical experience with premature infants, and as he writes in a recent abstract, ”It goes without saying that the ideal situation for the immature fetus is growth within the normal environment of the maternal organism.”
Kuwabara and his associates have kept the goat fetuses in this environment for as long as three weeks. But the doctor’s team ran into problems with circulatory failure, along with many other technical difficulties. Pressed to speculate on the future, Kuwabara cautiously predicts that ”it should be possible to extend the length” and, ultimately, ”this can be applied to human beings.”
For a moment, as you contemplate those fetal goats, it may seem a short hop to the Central Hatchery of Aldous Huxley’s imagination. In fact, in recent decades, as medicine has focused on the beginning and end stages of pregnancy, the essential time inside the woman’s body has been reduced. We are, however, still a long way from connecting those two points, from creating a completely artificial gestation. But we are at a moment when the fetus, during its obligatory time in the womb, is no longer inaccessible, no longer locked away from medical interventions.
The future of human reproductive medicine lies along the speeding trajectories of several different technologies. There is neonatology, accomplishing its miracles at the too-abrupt end of gestation. There is fetal surgery, intervening dramatically during pregnancy to avert the anomalies that kill and cripple newborns. There is the technology of assisted reproduction, the in-vitro fertilization and gamete retrieval-and-transfer fireworks of the last 20 years. And then, inevitably, there is genetics. All these technologies are essentially new, and with them come ethical questions so potent that the very inventors of these miracles seem half-afraid of where we may be heading.