A CLOSE LOOK
Scientific breakthroughs holding limitless prospect
Science has always been in search of breaking new grounds. Recently two such ground-breaking achievements have been reported ---one from the United States of America and the other from the Netherlands. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved artificially developed meat for human consumption. The other one is the development of an extra-uterine system for gestation of foetus for its usual growth and birth. Scientists in the Netherlands experimenting with an artificial womb claimed in 2019 that within 10 years they will be able to perfect an artificial uterus prototype for birth of human babies.
In fact, the breakthrough in developing foetuses into lambs in such a device, what its developers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, USA called biobag, was made as early as 2017. China has also claimed its success in developing an artificial intelligence (AI) system for taking care of development of embryos of mice.
Machine-made meat may look far less important than the development of an external womb but it can change human perception and even the planet beyond recognition. There has been a campaign for lessening the dependence of animal meat and other animal products such as milk, cheese, butter, yoghurt etc; because the dairy industry contributes immensely to the production of carbon dioxide and other noxious gases. People in the West are increasingly turning from animal meat to chicken. Some have become vegetarian and even vegan. To maintain their resolve to stay out of meaty dishes, vegetarian meat has also been developed. India has been doing it for quite some time. Now the artificial meat developed in machines can save the extra burden of breeding animals and their mass slaughter. Such alternatives to meat can greatly help reduce global warming.
So far as the artificial womb outside of a female body is concerned, its prospect for saving the lives of infants born prematurely is what counts most. Those who feel exuberant contemplating that the science fiction-like pregnancy and development of an embryo in a machine will give them the advantage of not risking birth pang and the physical disadvantages for months must think twice before availing of such an opportunity.
Women who cannot give birth to babies or suffer miscarriage or couples unable to produce babies, have every reason to be hopeful of a happy family with children becoming moving delight before their eyes. Currently, surrogate mothers help childless couples to have their babies. In some extreme cases, surrogacy has become commercial to a certain degree. On the other side, surrogate mothers at times become so emotionally attached to the babies that they refuse to give up the new-borns to couples for whom they rented their wombs.
True, a machine will never claim its right on a baby that was nurtured inside it when the organism was in the form of a foetus. But it is in cases of premature birth that the system will be highly useful. Even in the US, about 10 per cent of babies are born prematurely, of them 6.0 per cent are considered critically premature. This means that 30,000 of such premature babies are born before 28 weeks. Here is a critical area where such machines can intervene with the intensive support they need outside of their mothers' bodies.
Happily, the external uteruses created either in the US or in the Netherlands provide almost the exact environment such babies require in their mothers' womb. With appropriate nutritional support, so far, lambs put on the system have been able to achieve normal somatic growth, lung maturation, brain growth and myelination. These are condition for offspring of animals to survive when they are born.
So the experiment with lambs shows the way. Human babies born prematurely can be saved if they are given the extra care in the external wombs. Childless couple too stand the chance of raising their families with young ones growing up before their eyes courtesy of the artificial womb. But from the moral standpoint, the device should not be used as an alternative to normal pregnancy. After all, the emotional attachment between mother and baby is too precious to be dispensed with.