FEMALES REDUNDANT: Women Obsolete?

Artificial female wombs are a staple of science fiction, but could men really build one? As time passes, we’re inching closer and closer to the day when it will finally become possible to grow a baby entirely outside the females human body. Here’s what  men will need to do to pull it off.

 

More than just an incubator

 

A fully functional artificial uterus will be substantially more complex than a modern incubator, a clunky (and somewhat obtrusive) device that provides a preemie with oxygen, protection from cold, hydration and nutrition (via intravenous catheter or NG tube), and adequate levels of humidity.

 

Even in the best of cases, the current state-of-the-art doesn’t allow for viability outside of the womb until mid to late second trimester. Prior to that, a mother’s womb is the only option. Quite obviously, future incubators, or a full-blown artificial uterus, will push the limits of viability further and further until the entire gestational cycle can happen external to the body.

 

We’re still several decades away, but the two primary areas that need to be developed include biotechnology (for things like personalized genomics and tissue engineering) and nanotechnology (to facilitate micro-scale interactions and growth through artificial means). Smart computer systems and monitoring devices should also be developed to track the progress of the fetus’s growth, while automatically adjusting for changing conditions.

 

In terms of specifics, these are the broad components that will be required:

 

Artificial endometrium

 

The inner lining of the artificial uterus should resemble the real thing as much as possible.

 

Actually, for the first generation of artificial wombs, it would be prudent to mimic every gestational process as much as possible (we are producing a biological organism, after all). Later versions can then build upon what nature designed, and be optimized accordingly.

 

To that end, an artificial endometrium should not be made from glass or metal, but instead consist of a glandular layer made of real tissue. A blastocyst conceived via in vitro fertilization could then be implanted about 3 to 4 mm into the endometrium where it would take root and proceed to grow.

 

Work in this area has already been conducted by Cornell University’s Hung-Ching Liu. Many years ago, she prepared a co-culture system that combined epithelial and stromal cells (for ethical reasons these experiments weren’t extended beyond six days). Hung-Ching’s work is considered the first real attempt towards the development of an a-womb.

 

In addition to providing a physical starting point and enclosed space for the fetus, the artificial endometrium could also spawn and host a real placenta (e.g. by coaxing the growth of pluripotent stem cells), though it doesn’t necessarily have to come about this way.

 

Artificial placenta

 

And indeed, the growing fetus will also need a placenta, the organ which connects it to the uterine wall (via umbilicus) allowing for the delivery of nutrients, the elimination of waste, and gas exchange through the mother’s blood supply. Depending on the technologies available, the a-placenta could either develop “naturally” on the endometrial wall, or it could take the form an external device (or devices) that performs the same function. For example, a dialysis machine could actually help with waste disposal.

 

But a fully functional placenta will be crucial to the baby’s development and eventual good health. For example, the placenta is responsible for transferring the mother’s igG antibodies to the fetus — an important mechanism that provides protection to the infant while its immune system develops. Placental hormones also control fetal growth. During the early stages of pregnancy, the placenta provides the fetus with serotonin, which helps with brain development. And as noted, the placenta also regulates the way nutrients are delivered to the fetus, including the delivery of amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose.

 

The delivery of nutrients to the fetus should also reflect the way a mother would normally eat during the course of the pregnancy, both in terms of timing and composition of food.

 

If not designed and managed correctly, the fetus could experience problems, both in terms of growth restriction or overgrowth.

 

Getting an a-placenta to perform all these functions won’t be easy, but advances in personalized genetics and regenerative medicine will go a long way to make it happen. If our bodies can do it, so can a machine.

 

 

Fascinatingly, work on an artificial placenta has already begun. Goats have been kept alive for up to 237 hours in amniotic tanks through a process called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). It’s also a technique used in some neonatal wards to treat infants with medical problems involving gas exchange and the lungs.

 

Synthetic amniotic fluid

 

Dismissed as unimportant by biologists for many years, the fluid that fills the amniotic space is a complex and dynamic milieu. It changes as the pregnancy progresses (both in terms of its amount and composition) and it’s critical to fetal well-being. Producing and managing this ever-changing mixture will be just as critical as all the other gestational elements.

 

 

For example, amniotic fluid contains nutrients and growth factors that facilitate fetal growth. At first it consists of water and electrolytes, but it eventually contains proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, antimicrobial agents, and urea. It also protects and cushions the fetus. Image: Washington Times.

 

Amniotic fluid is also “inhaled” and “exhaled” by the fetus, an important process that’s essential to the development of healthy lungs. A fetus will also swallow the fluid, which creates the urea and meconium.

 

Temperature regulation

 

The incubator, if it can be called that, will also need to operate at just the right temperature. The fetus develops 0.3 to 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than mother’s, so typically about 37 degrees Celsius.

 

Proper stimulation

 

The fetus will also need to be stimulated across a number of sensorial domains. And indeed, the maternal womb has been called “an optimal, stimulating, interactive environment for human development.”

 

Ideally, the a-womb should move the unborn baby in a way reminiscent to how a mother moves, including standing, walking, and lying down positions. The incubator should be set to a 24-hour clock in which waking and sleeping hours are simulated. Basically, activity should never cease, nor should the fetus ever feel physically “isolated”. A sense of touch will also need to be simulated.

 

Fetuses are also active listeners. This is very important from a developmental perspective, both in terms of exciting the neural areas required for hearing, and for the unborn baby to bond with its caregivers in advance. Sounds should definitely be a part of the artificial uterus, including the steady swish-swishing of a heart beat.

 

Microbiome stimulation

 

It will also be important to kickstart a healthy gut microbiome. During vaginal birth, a baby is exposed to cocktail of microbes. This mixture ends up inside the baby’s gut where it helps them digest food, regulate bowels, develop their immune systems, and protect against infection.

 

 

To simulate this effect, biologists will have to recreate this mixture, ideally from biological samples derived from the mother (or grown externally). Image: Science Photo Library.

 

Final thoughts

 

An artificial womb will likely be the result of iterative attempts to push the limits of exosomatic viability. These days, the earliest that preemies can survive is around the 21 to 22 week mark. As time passes we can expect to see this number get smaller and smaller — and eventually to the point where a fetus can survive exclusively outside the womb. This will, of course, raise some thorny issues in the U.S. abortion debate.

 

Once in use, and after some time has passed, scientists will undoubtedly study the long term effects on babies born in an a-womb as compared to those born naturally. Initially, the health of a-womb spawned babies will likely be inferior to those grown in a real womb. Refinements will undoubtedly improve these results over time. And in fact, I wholly expect that an artificial womb will someday bring a baby to term in a way that’s even superior to the real thing.

 

Indeed, unlike a mother, an artificial womb is not susceptible to disease or malnourishment, nor will it be prone to drinking or smoking. And with the assistance of powerful computers, advanced biotech, and even microscopic machines, the gestational process will be further optimized.

 

It’s also interesting to consider how this technology will be received, and how many people will opt into it. It’s safe to say that many prospective parents will react negatively to it, arguing that natural will always be best. But for those who need or want it, the advent of artificial wombs will certainly herald an unprecedented stage in human history.

 

Artificial Wombs and Petri Dish Sperm

While reproductive technology has until now focused on getting more women pregnant, future technology may make it so that they don’t actually have to be pregnant. There may come a day when babies grow in artificial wombs that are hooked up to a placenta machine. In 2001, Hun-Chin Liu of Cornell University began growing sheets of endometrial tissue; when the sheets proved too thin to accommodate embryos, she was able to construct a freestanding uterus. When she implanted donated human embryos, they began growing in the tissue much like they would in a woman’s womb. The embryos had to be removed, though, due to regulations that limit human fetal growth in a laboratory [source: Reynolds].

In 2003, Liu implanted mouse embryos into an artificial womb; while the embryos almost reached full-term, they ended up deformed, which means this technology has a way to go before women can begin outsourcing the pregnancy process. Still, ethicists are already pondering the implications of artificial wombs. Scott Gelfand of Oklahoma State University told Nature that he could foresee a world in which women who wanted abortions would have to place fetuses in artificial wombs; the resulting children could then be adopted [source: Pearson].

Other scientists are working on growing sperm and eggs in the laboratory. In 2009, researchers at Newcastle University in England announced they had created human sperm cells from embryonic tissue [source: Park]. While the manufactured sperm resembled the real deal in looks and actions, scientists believe that sperm need a 15-year lease in some testes before they’re ready to fertilize an egg [source: Park]. For now, researchers envision using the created sperm to study male infertility.

Meanwhile, scientists work on manufacturing eggs and even entire embryos. In the future, it may be possible for two gay men to have a baby together without the help of a surrogate, because eggs can be made from male cells; unfortunately, sperm requires a Y chromosome, leaving lesbian couples to rely on the help of male tissue [source: Adam]. And such a three-parent embryo isn’t out of the question — in 2008, scientists created one for the purpose of eliminating the risk of mitochondrial diseases. The scientists took DNA from the mother and the father, but removed the parts that could foretell a condition like blindness or diabetes. That DNA was implanted into a donor egg which had been scraped of all genetic information except for the tiny bit that does control production of mitochondria, ensuring the fetus ended up with all the genes he or she needed, minus the disease-causing ones [source: BBC].

Will children born without such genetic tinkering end up inferior to the ones born in the lab? For now, we’re left with more questions than answers, but as we wonder at the possibilities, science keeps moving forward.

 

The Future of Babies?
A few intrepid researchers are learning how to make babies the new-fashioned way: growing them in artificial wombs

A fetus lives in a world of bubbles. In its earliest days, it’s shaped like one. Later, it floats in one-the squishy, enveloping amniotic sac. And eventually, if all goes well, the fetus releases one bubble of fluid, then another and another, like smoke signals, as it puckers and swallows and floats in the womb. It was the bubbles that first convinced Hung-Ching Liu two years ago that a baby might actually be grown outside its mother’s uterus. Liu, the director of the Reproductive Endocrine Laboratory at Cornell University’s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in Manhattan, has become, almost accidentally, the nation’s premier womb-maker.

Beginning in 2001, her lab started growing sheets of human tissue composed of cells from
the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. This engineered tissue, which used starter cells donated by infertile patients, was meant to bolster the clinic’s in-vitro fertilization success. A layer of endometrial cells is, after all, the ideal platform on which to nurture an embryo, a medium almost as good as mom would have made.

But the tissue, a single layer of cells stretched across a cell culture within a plastic petri dish, was gossamer-thin. “We’d hoped the embryos would implant on this tissue,” Liu says, “so we could learn more about the mechanisms of implantation. But they could not.” The growing embryos would break through the tissue, smack against the petri dish and, like a tree whose roots hit rock, die.

So Liu added layers, tissue atop tissue, until she had a three-dimensional model, essentially a freestanding uterus. Embryos could attach to this engineered tissue. They could burrow in, sending out shoots of blood vessel. They could take in nutrition and give out waste. They could divide, differentiate, and thrive.

Which led at last to the bubbles. In 2003, in an experiment that hasn’t received as much attention as one might expect—perhaps because Liu hasn’t published her results, due to her qualms about how those results will be received by politicians, activists and desperate would-be parents—a mouse embryo grew almost to full term in one of Liu’s artificial wombs. It moved. It breathed. It bubbled. “And not just one bubble,” Liu says. “We saw bubble, bubble, bubble.”

She may also have glimpsed, in that moment, the far-out future of human reproduction, vitreous and shifting. Thanks to her research and others’, man-made mouse wombs could be a reality within a decade—and a stepping stone to artificial human wombs. Eventually, these baby incubators could supplant natural ones. Conception could be clinical, and birth bloodless. Gestation could be detached from motherhood, and a fetus could be viable from the instant that sperm and egg fused.

Or not. Days after cheerfully percolating, Liu’s rodent fetus died, deformed and contorted, more seahorse than mouse, a developmental freak. The same thing happened to the next fetus she implanted, and the one after that. “Making babies is more complicated than we imagined,” Liu says. “And we knew going into this that making babies is very, very complicated.”

Liu, 63, is a short woman with full cheeks, a rounded middle and smooth, unlined skin who bustles along the corridors of her lab like a cartoon teapot. She is, by any measure, maternal, with two grown sons. Twenty-one years ago, Liu, then an assistant professor, joined the first team in the U.S. to have produced a test-tube baby. Now she and her partners can boast an enviable success rate. In the past several years, about 40 percent of the couples that came to her group conceived, and in 2004, the center’s 10,000th IVF baby was born.

Her artificial-womb work was a natural outgrowth of the IVF efforts and is motivated by the same ache. “I see so many women who want their own baby so badly,” she says. Among them are women whose embryos have failed to take hold and grow and who might benefit from her current research.

Liu’s artificial womb is a surprisingly simple construction. She created it after researching the making of artificial skin and adapting those methods. First she and her co-workers mold a base, a womb-shaped matrix of collagen and chondroitin, substances that are biodegradable. Over time, they dissolve, leaving only the endometrial tissue that is placed over the matrix. Each womb is shaped like a section of the mammalian version it mimics: The artificial human mold is bowl-shaped; the faux mouse womb is a doughnut-shaped section of a mouse’s tubular uterus.

In the beginning, Liu used endometrial cells donated by some of the clinic’s female patients to grow human tissue. Then she added human embryos left over from IVF treatments, donated by other patients. These zygotes implanted and started to grow. But after they had gestated for 10 days, Liu ended the experiments, well short of viability. Under current federal regulations, two weeks is the limit for human fetal growth in the lab. “So we switched to an animal model,” Liu says with a shrug. In 2002 she and her colleagues started making mouse wombs and growing mouse embryos inside them.

In outline, the gestation process seems straightforward. Sperm and egg meet. An embryo implants. Between them, mother and baby build a placenta and an amniotic sac. Fluid builds up around the growing embryo. Hormones move in and out. Nutrition, blood and oxygen pass through the placenta. Waste products are removed. There’s a gentle hum of maternal heartbeat and digestion. It’s like a well-modulated, high-end aquarium.

Except, of course, that it’s not. The actual sequence of events is exceedingly intricate. Miss one minor step, delete a gene expression, add a dribble too much or too little of a single hormone, and you’ll wind up with a baby who is dead or monstrous or, in what may be a blessing, both.

Artificial wombs have figured for generations in fiction, feminist theory, abortion debates and even the wistful imaginings of women far advanced in pregnancy. In Brave New World, the 1932 book by Aldous Huxley, babies grew in tubes. In 1970 Shulamith Firestone wrote in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution that artificial wombs should be developed to free women from “the tyranny of their sexual-reproductive roles.” More recently, the exhausted working-mother heroine of the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It assures a younger female colleague that she, at least, will be relieved of the tedium and career-torching effects of pregnancy, thanks to emerging baby-in-a-box technology. Science has been playing catch-up to these fantasies: In 1963, researchers put miscarried fetuses in oxygen chambers and added a watery fluid. It didn’t work.

The closest approximation of an operational machine-womb was created about five years ago. In experiments at Juntendo University in Tokyo, an acrylic box was filled with a liquid similar to amniotic fluid. A goat embryo, removed by cesarean section after four months of normal gestation, was placed in the chamber and its umbilical cord hooked to tubes connected to an artificial placenta. Most of the kids died, but a few survived up to three weeks, reaching full term for a goat. None was without deformities or lung problems. The experiments are no longer under way.

Which has left the field to Liu. She and two of her colleagues, both men, have been refining their artificial womb bit by bit. They’re developing liquid formulas that are incrementally closer to the fluids within an actual mammalian uterus, although developing the perfect mix of blood, hormones and proteins—and precisely adjusting it during the course of a pregnancy—is so far impossible. Minuscule differences in amniotic fluid have been found, in other labs’ experiments, to produce notable differences in the resulting offspring.

In Liu’s most recent experiment, she surgically implanted one of her artificial mouse wombs in an adult mouse, and the fetus inside lived about 19 days. (In earlier experiments, fetuses survived in external wombs for up to 17 days. That’s roughly equivalent to 37 weeks of human fetal development, although fetuses appear to develop slower in artificial wombs than in real ones.) But invariably, each mouse embryo, more than 150 to date, died. One reason, Liu believes, is that the snaky vines of blood vessels that should link the tiny bodies to the womb’s surface wither or fail to develop at all. Starved of blood, the embryos shrivel.

To rectify this, Liu’s colleague Weidong Wang has been studying the expression of a gene, called murine AGPAT, that seems to stimulate blood-vessel formation within the womb. If you block that gene, the embryo can’t implant fully and grow, which may explain why some women—in whom this gene is missing or malfunctioning—miscarry. Force the gene’s expression, on the other hand, and you get a jungle of blood vessels, a fecund clot of veins. The work may have implications for cancer treatment. Block the gene’s expression, and you could disable a tumor’s ability to create new blood vessels for itself, causing a slow self-strangulation. “There’s overlap between research into fertility and oncology,” Wang says. “The beginning of life and the end of life. We deal with both in this lab.”

The people most invested in the creation of an artificial womb may not be the scientists. Members of the Raelian cult—who also claim to have cloned a baby—announced in 2003 that they had developed a Babytron (their word) that could incubate human embryos from conception onward. No evidence exists to support either of the group’s audacious claims.

More seriously, some abortion foes, to support their fight, have seized on the potential of external gestation. As they point out, Roe v. Wade relies to a large degree on the nonviability of the aborted fetus. Forty states and the District of Columbia have restricted abortion after approximately 24 weeks of gestation, at which point a baby could survive birth. An artificial womb would vastly extend the period of fetal viability. In theory, an embryo could survive outside its mother’s body from the moment of its conception. Some anti-abortion activists have said that women should therefore be required to incubate aborted fetuses in artificial wombs.

Bioethicists worry that another subset of women will employ fake wombs for convenience, to avoid stretch marks and weight gain or to prolong Hollywood careers. Some radical feminists see the man-made uteruses as a way not just to free women from pregnancy but to rid the human race of females completely. If sufficient ova were banked, they say, men could have an artificial womb surgically implanted and bear children themselves.

Clearly, the most logical and worthy use of artificial wombs would be to help couples who cannot conceive but wish for a genetically related baby. But even in that case, the rationale for an artificial womb is murky. “We have a perfectly safe, workable alternative,” says Thomas Murray, the president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, New York. “We have surrogate mothers.” An infertile woman might be squeamish about having someone else carry her issue, another body exchanging blood and emotion with her child. “But,” Murray continues, “if someone insists on an artificial womb, if they want to create a biologically related baby so badly that they are willing to risk having that baby be severely deformed, it’s hard for me to see the moral good in that.”

Janet DiPietro is the world’s leading expert on what it’s like to be an embryo. A developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, she is one of the few scientists to have closely studied the womb as an ecosystem. In recent experiments, DiPietro and her colleagues attached monitors to the skin and belly of pregnant women. They had expected to find that the child within responded to its mother’s moods. Earlier research had shown that fetuses react almost instantly to changes in maternal position or emotions—with stillness. DiPietro speculates that this is the way the fetus learns to understand its mother and her body and how she reacts to noise and other stimuli.

But in work published last year, she found that the instruction is hardly unilateral. Fetuses teach their mothers, too. “We found that the fetuses were moving when the mothers weren’t even aware of it, and were giving the mother a little emotional jolt. They were, in effect, training her to pay attention to them.” Since much of this movement comes at night, they were also giving her a foretaste of sleep deprivation, apparently knowing deep within their DNA that she might as well start getting used to it.

“The fetal environment is more than just hormones,” DiPietro says. “You can’t simply add titrates of this or that hormone or protein and re-create the womb.” An embryo gestating outside its mother “will wind up being different than that same embryo [would be] had it developed the natural way.”

Women who have borne children understand this instinctively. Any woman who has lain in the dark watching a heel-shaped bump move across her belly knows that a sensibility is growing within, that the child is becoming itself even while still a part of her. The success of adoption shows that this interaction isn’t necessary for parental bonding. But is it essential in certain immeasurable ways to the infantile brain and body, to a baby’s later ability to touch, attach, and love?

As Liu pursues the science of hormone levels and gene expression, she too worries about the ineffable. In 2001, after her earliest experiments with human zygotes were publicized, she was inundated with calls from infertile women begging to become test subjects. Overwhelmed by the response and by her own unwonted realization that,
as she says, “this work could have great social impact,” she halted the artificial-womb experiments for a full year, resuming only after reaching certain decisions.

“I don’t want to make a womb for the convenience of women who don’t want to be pregnant,” she says. And she declines to discuss the uses that anti-abortion groups might make of her results. “I want to make a womb that would be a replacement organ,” she says, that would be implanted in a woman whose endometrial tissue was donated, that would fully re-create the rich, dark wilderness of a healthy female reproductive system.

But as we all know, intentions don’t mean much once an innovation is released. Liu thinks she and her team should have a viable mouse womb in 5 to 10 years. A human model will take longer—“10 years, maybe, or a little more,” she says, assuming that restrictions on fetal testing are lifted or eased. “It could take as much as 50 years, but I’m very hopeful that this is possible.” Her voice is soft. “It will be helping a life, a baby, helping parents. Those are good things, and that’s all I can be thinking about right now.”

Women redundant? Now we know women are obsolete.

Scientists have developed an artificial womb that allows embryos to grow outside the body
Doctors are developing artificial wombs in which embryos can grow outside a woman’s body. The work has been hailed as a breakthrough in treating the childless.

Scientists have created prototypes made out of cells extracted from women’s bodies. Embryos successfully attached themselves to the walls of these laboratory wombs and began to grow. However, experiments had to be terminated after a few days to comply with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) regulations.

‘We hope to create complete artificial wombs using these techniques in a few years,’ said Dr Hung-Ching Liu of Cornell University’s Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility. ‘Women with damaged uteruses and wombs will be able to have babies for the first time.’

The pace of progress in the field has startled experts. Artificial wombs could end many women’s childbirth problems – but they also raise major ethical headaches which will be debated at a major international conference titled ‘The End of Natural Motherhood?’ in Oklahoma next week.

‘There are going to be real problems,’ said organiser Dr Scott Gelfand, of Oklahoma State University. ‘Some feminists even say artificial wombs mean men could eliminate women from the planet and still perpetuate our species. That’s a bit alarmist. Nevertheless, this subject clearly raises strong feelings.’

Liu’s work involves removing cells from the endometrium, the lining of the womb. ‘We have learnt how to grow these cells in the laboratory using hormones and growth factors,’ she said.

After this Liu and her colleagues grew layers of these cells on scaffolds of biodegradable material which had been modelled into shapes mirroring the interior of the uterus. The cells grew into tissue and the scaffold dissolved. Then nutrients and hormones such as oestrogen were added to the tissue.

‘Finally, we took embryos left over from IVF programmes and put these into our laboratory engineered tissue. The embryos attached themselves to the walls of our prototype wombs and began to settle there.’

The experiments were halted after six days. However, Liu now plans to continue with this research and allow embryos to grow in the artificial wombs for 14 days, the maximum permitted by IVF legislation. ‘We will then see if the embryos put down roots and veins into our artificial wombs’ walls, and see if their cells differentiate into primitive organs and develop a primitive placenta.’

The immediate aim of this work is to help women whose damaged wombs prevent them from conceiving. An artificial womb would be made from their own endometrium cells, an embryo placed inside it, and allowed to settle and grow before the whole package is placed back in her body.

‘The new womb would be made of the woman’s own cells. so there would be no danger of organ rejection,’ Liu added.

However, her research is currently limited by IVF legislation. ‘The next stage will involve experiments with mice or dogs. If that works, we shall ask to take our work beyond the 14-day limit now imposed on such research.’

A different approach has been taken by Yoshinori Kuwabara at Juntendo University in Tokyo. His team has removed foetuses from goats and placed them in clear plastic tanks filled with amniotic fluid stabilised at body temperature. In this way, Kuwabara has kept goat foetuses alive and growing for up to 10 days by connecting their umbilical cords to machines that pump in nutrients and dispose of waste.

While Liu’s work is aimed at helping those having difficulty conceiving, Kuwabara’s is designed to help women who suffer miscarriages or very premature births. In this way Liu is extending the time an embryo can exist in a laboratory before being placed in a woman’s body; Kuwabara is trying to give a foetus a safe home if expelled too early from its natural womb.

Crucially, both believe artificial wombs capable of sustaining a child for nine months will become reality in a few years.

‘Essentially research is moving towards the same goal but from opposite directions,’ UK fertility expert Dr Simon Fishel, of Park Hospital, Nottingham, said. ‘Getting them to meet in the middle will not be easy, however. There are so many critical stages of pregnancy, and so many factors to get right. Nevertheless, this work is very exciting.’

It also has serious ethical implications, as Gelfand pointed out. ‘For a start, there is the issue of abortion. A woman is usually allowed to have one on the grounds she wants to get rid of something alien inside her own body.

‘At present, this means killing the foetus. But if artificial wombs are developed, the foetus could be placed in one, and the woman told she has to look after it once it has developed into a child.’

In addition, if combined with cloning technology, artificial wombs raise the prospect that gay couples could give ‘birth’ to their own children. ‘This would no doubt horrify right-wingers, while the implications for abortion law might well please them,’ he added.

Gelfand also warned that artificial wombs could have unexpected consequences for working women and health insurance. ‘They would mean that women would no longer need maternity leave – which employers could become increasingly reluctant to give.

‘It may also turn out that artificial wombs provide safer environments than natural wombs which can be invaded by drugs and alcohol from a mother’s body. Health insurance companies could actually insist that women opt for the artificial way.

‘Certainly, this is going to raise a lot of tricky problems.’

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