Men redundant? Now we don’t need women either

February 12, 2002 | Source: The Observer

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. The research is headed by Dr. Hung-Ching Liu of Cornell University’s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility. Liu’s work involves removing cells from the endometrium, the lining of the womb.

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 estrogen 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 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 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.

Artificial wombs raise major ethical headaches which will be debated at a major international conference titled “The End of Natural Motherhood?” in Oklahoma next week.

Ethical and social issues include abortion, the prospect that gay couples could give “birth” to their own children by combining artificial wombs with cloning, and unexpected consequences for working women and health insurance (materity leave would no longer be needed and artificial wombs insurance companies might prefer safer environments than natural wombs, which can be invaded by drugs and alcohol from a mother’s body).