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The Future of Sex

Artificial wombs, lifelong fertility -- it seems the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, but an author says it will happen.

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Where do we currently stand with artificial womb technology?

That’s been quite hard to find out, actually, because scientists have been attacked for talking about it, even though the reason they’re doing it is because there are actually a ridiculous number of women who are born with damaged or deformed wombs and will never have a chance to have a baby naturally. But the whole [Aldous] Huxley concept of “Brave New World” comes up, sort of imagining babies being farmed in dystopias.

What we do know is that there have been incubators that have been able to keep fetuses from other animals – goats, for example – alive at very young ages. An artificial womb is essentially pushing back and back the age at which you can keep a fetus alive and healthy. An artificial womb has been created for a relative of the grey nurse shark, but sharks’ placentation and how they grow in the womb is a bit less complicated than in humans. It’s a huge challenge, but work has been going on with goats’ fetuses with uterine tissues – in dishes in the lab, but still, they’ve been able to create womb scaffolding. It goes some way toward laying the groundwork for creating a place outside the body in which a baby could potentially grow. So on one side of the research that’s going on it’s to look at how to keep babies alive when they’re born prematurely; on the other side is how to make fertilized eggs implant in the womb. I don’t think it’s beyond the capacity of technology.

People say, “What about bonding?” but already women use surrogates, already adopted parents bond with their children. In some countries, surrogacy has become a kind of boom industry, and the women who do these things — I’m talking egg donations and renting their wombs out to become surrogate mothers — are doing it for economic gain, and because they feel like they have to. If you had the availability of artificial wombs, ethicists have told me it’s going to be very hard to argue that you shouldn’t use this artificial womb instead of paying a poor woman in Ukraine or India to do that for you. It’s quite hard to tell, I don’t know how far into the future we’ll have one, but I do know that it’s definitely underway, and people aren’t talking about it.

What sorts of wild reproductive technologies can we anticipate in the future?

For me, the most interesting ones are the ones that might change the status quo for women in terms of our reproductive clock. Just because we go to school the same as men, we work the same, we spend most of the fertile years of our lives building our careers like men do, but then we hit this abrupt end of our fertility that men don’t really have. That stopping of our reproductive potential goes along with increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis; some doctors consider it an organ failure just like any other, and it has a lot of impact for women throughout life. So I wonder about technologies that will allow women to have healthy eggs throughout their lives.

The reason why scientists were trying to create sperm and eggs from bone marrow stem cells is because if you really want to understand how something’s made and what goes wrong with it, the best thing to do sometimes is to try and create it from scratch. What they found is they can generate eggs from female bone marrow, but what’s very interesting is that they can generate both sperm and eggs from male bone marrow stem cells. Scientists have told me that this could be in clinical use in about 15 to 20 years’ time. It could change what families look like, because you could see a situation where a gay couple or a lesbian couple for the first time ever in history has a child that’s genetically their own. It also means that as a woman gets older, even as her supply of eggs may not be very good, she can still generate her own genetic eggs rather than getting egg donors.

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