Can we build an Artificial Womb?

Artificial Womb

The artificial womb, or as TV tropes call it, the Uterine Replicator, is not a very common science fiction trope, but it does pop up from time to time. The oldest anime I know with an artificial womb is Armitage the Third, while the most popular one is Gundam Seed. In both cases the artificial womb plays a crucial role in the plot. What is an artificial womb? Simply put it is a device that would have to mimic everything that the mother’s body does to protect, support, and nourish the developing baby for nine months. Given everything that happens over the course of nine months this would be no small feat and some would say borderline impossible. Or as I would tell my students, given the development that has been made in artificial hearts and lungs, I won’t say it is impossible. Science should be able to eventually figure it out, but it won’t be happening anytime soon. Then of course I ran across this article.

While this sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, it is a real thing. The device was created by a group of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, with significant input from doctors in Australia. While the name artificial womb might imply a device that can grow a mammal to full term, that was not the case. The doctors removed 8 lambs from their mother at 105-115 days, which is equal to a human fetus at 23 weeks, and placed them in the artificial womb. The lambs then developed to term inside of the device.

artificial womb

1 and 3 are an artificial heart-lung machine that circulates blood outside of the fetus, replicating the role of the placenta. It provides the oxygen and nutrients the fetus needs to survive.

2- Is a sealed enclosure that is filled with a simulated amniotic fluid to protect the fetus from infection.

An important fact to note is that the device cannot handle the entire development of the fetus from its earliest stages. It was designed as a system to support extremely premature babies, and some reports say that it could be ready for humans in the next 3 to 5 years. One thing the researchers had repeatedly stated is that the device is meant to support premature babies which still have serious health hurdles, despite all of the advances made in the past decade, and not for reproduction. While there are political, ethical, and sociological issues of an artificial womb, I think it might just be a bit premature since the current device hasn’t even made it to human testing yet.

Gundam Seed

Artificial womb

In Gundam Seed we are given a brief shot of the artificial womb and it looks very much like a mechanical tube, which is not inaccurate in a basic sense. There is no more information given on the device, beyond that it was created to reduce or remove environmental factors that could influence the developing fetus Just in case you didn’t know, yes, the environment can have a large impact on fetal development.
Alcohol- Fetal alcohol syndrome- a form of mental retardation, and physical changes
Thalidomide- stunts the development of the arms and legs
Smoking- low birth weight and an increase in sudden infant death syndrome
Illegal drugs- low birth weight, fetal addiction
Measles- blindness, mental retardation
Chicken pox- blindness, mental retardation
Mercury- miscarriage, physical and mental handicaps
Lead- miscarriage, low birth weight, neurological delays, anemia, encephalopathy, paralysis, blindness
Dioxin- Liver and thyroid issues, white blood cell problems, decreased learning and intelligence
Air Pollution- growth restrictions, heart and lung issues
Pesticides- multiple generalized defects
Benzenes- brain defects
Radiation- low birth weight, physical defects, cancer
Low vitamin B12- neural tube defects

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the more common ones with clear effects on the developing fetus. So it is by no means a surprise that the fetal environment could influence how a coordinator develops later in life. Thus, I will consider the artificial womb in Gundam Seed, plausible.


Armitage the Third

artificial womb

The artificial womb plays a much larger role in Armitage the Third, as it was designed in secret to help bolster the low population and birthrate of Mars, which was only recently colonized and terraformed. On the surface this makes sense in the context of the story, but there are some inconsistencies. We are never told what it is about Mars that makes it harder for women to carry children to term. However, there are some logical areas to speculate on.

The first and most obvious suspect is the atmosphere, which while breathable without any sort of breathing apparatus, is still in the process of being terraformed, so it’s possible that the air could be the problem. Well, first off the air is breathable, so it is not the concentration of oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or water vapor. Now some of you might be thinking, but what if it is not like the air at sea level on Earth? A good thought, but it doesn’t matter if the air is a little thinner, because there are thriving human settlements up to 5,100 meters. That is not to say that there is no effect, and I found one study from a less than reputable source that reported that babies born above 8,500 feet tend to be smaller and the mothers are at a higher risk of certain side effects. This all sounds logical, but I can’t confirm it as much as I would like. That being said, however, there is nothing that hints at a lower birthrate and fertility rates as is the case in Armitage the Third.

The second and more likely cause is the Martian soil, which contains large amounts of iron oxide (rust), which is not actually the problem. Perchlorates are also found in the soil of Mars and they could cause problems for a developing child. Again, however, that level of perchlorate, which would also cause problems for the adults of Mars, seems unlikely since no health effects are shown in the anime. So, perchlorates are not the likely culprit. The possible third culprit is solar radiation due to Mars lacking a strong magnetic field, but a thick breathable atmosphere would remove this issue.

The final culprit would be the gravity, as the gravity of Mars is 2/3 that of Earth’s. While it has been known for some time that low gravity has a number of effects on the human body, no research has been done to my knowledge on how it would affect a developing fetus. So, if the low gravity was indeed the problem, how could an artificial womb alleviate the problem, when artificial gravity on such a small scale is impossible according to current scientific research. Also, the anime gives no indication that it has artificial gravity technology.

While the reasoning behind the need for artificial womb technology is a bit flawed, the possibility of its existing is not. The third series androids in Armitage seem to be some sort of biomechanical construct, so if a large scale artificial womb is possible, it is not too surprising that at some point in the future it could be shrunk down to a more natural size.


Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments section below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *