Earlier this year, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) revealed that they had developed an artificial womb capable of sustaining a premature lamb during a period of development roughly equivalent to 23 to 24 weeks’ gestation in humans. That’s a critical time. In the United States, an estimated 30,000 babies are born extremely premature each year. Weighing about one pound, their survival is uncertain. Those who do survive have a much higher likelihood of lifelong health problems such as lung disease, cerebral palsy, and hearing and vision impairments.
The new device, the researchers suggested, could one day dramatically improve outcomes for this particularly vulnerable group.
Such were the very narrow and targeted goals of the CHOP team. The public response among bioethicists and the media, however, was far more elaborate. In the weeks following the paper’s publication, a wide range of speculative narratives painted the development with a dystopian air. In an interview with NPR, Dena Davis, a bioethicist at Lehigh University, invoked Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human conception and gestation occur entirely outside the body—a concept known as “ectogenesis”—under the control of an autocratic state. In that same NPR segment, Scott Gelfand, a bioethicist at Oklahoma State University, worried that employers could require female employees to use artificial wombs to avoid maternity leave.