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Artificial Wombs Could Help Save Millions of Premature Babies Within the Next Decade

Representative Image.

Representative Image. (Reuters)

Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in Netherlands have been given a £2.6m grant to develop a prototype that could be used in clinics.

Dutch scientists are on the verge of a breakthrough. They predict that within a decade, they will be able to create a working prototype of an artificial womb, something that could save the lives of millions of babies who die due to the premature births.

Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in Netherlands have been given a £2.6m grant to work on the development of a prototype for artificial wombs that could be used in clinics. Artificial wombs could help reduce complications and even save a prematurely born baby's life by acting as a replacement womb that could allow the fetus to complete full gestation period.

The external womb does so by simulating conditions naturally present withing a womb using a faux placenta that is connected to the fetus's umbilical chord.

Why is this important?

According to accepted norms, any birth that occurs before the 37th week of pregnancy is considered premature. At present, about a million babies across the world die because of premature of birth, The Guardian reported. Even the ones who survive incur a range of medical difficulties and disabilities.

As per data collected by Tommy's, a UK-based not-for profit organisation that funds prenatal and neonatal research, babies born at 22 weeks of gestation have just a 10 percent chance of surviving. However, in just two weeks of added gestation, chances of survival shoot up to 6- percent.

External, artificial wombs could be extremely useful in such cases as they could provide almost perfect natural, womb-like conditions and allow a fetus to get adequate oxygen and nutrients through the umbilical chord. Unlike current incubation methods that deliver oxygen and nutrients directly to the organs like the lungs which may not have the full capacity to handle the treatment, the newer system would allow fetuses to grow its organs under natural conditions.

Research into the idea has been ongoing. In 2017, a team of researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in US successfully tested an artificial womb meant to carry premature births on a lamb feotus.

Why is it controversial?

While the implication of artificial wombs in terms of prenatal care could be miraculous, critics have already raised alarm bells over what this could mean for women's rights. Some feminist thinkers, as Professor Julien S. Murphy of the University of Southern Maine wrote in her book 'Feminist Perspectives in Medical Ethics' wrote, have raised concerns about how birthing outside of the human body, or ectogenesis, will affect the perception of women. Some even fear that deleting the need for women's bodies from the reproductive process could lead to women becoming obsolete. It would also impact abortion rights and the global women's movement to reclaim control over their bodies.

Strides in ectogenesis could also open up a minefield of political and ethical complications. While medical science is still a long way from completely growing babies from petri dishes, the possibility raises concerns about reproductive rights and genetic engineering.