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04/25/2017

Could we be marsupials?

Four scientists have just announced, in Nature Communications, that they have successfully created an artificial womb in which “extremely premature” lambs were nurtured for four weeks, enough to make them ready to meet the world.  The goal is to advance this technology until it is available for very premature (23-26 week) human infants.  At present, very premature infants have extremely poor prognoses: likely death, or severe disabilities.  4-5 weeks would be enough to allow a “very premature infant” to become merely a “premature infant,” with a good prognosis.

If successful, this could be a terrific technology.  At present, we put preemies into Neonatal Intensive Care Units, which are super stressful for the babies and their families, and the things we do to try to support them very often cause serious damage if the baby does survive.  Fetuses, for example, are meant to breathe liquid while in the womb, but if they are born prematurely, all we can do is to force air into their little lungs, often causing permanent lung damage.  A calm, soothing environment that mimicked the human uterus would be a wonderful thing.

But it does make me wonder—would this make humans somewhat like marsupials?  At present, one is either born or not.  A fetus just a day away from delivery is still just a very late-term fetus.  And a very premature infant, once it is born and draws breath, is now an infant, legally and ethically a human person.  Would this technology create a new, intermediate stage?  What are the ethical and legal implications?

 

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