Artificial wombs are a possible but distant solution to infertility, says an IVF researcher who has created them for mice. Dr Hung-Chin Liu, of Cornell University's Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in Manhattan, believes that her team will create a viable mouse womb in 5 to 10 years and, if restrictions on foetal experiments are lifted, a human womb within another 10 years. In 2003, she managed to nurture a mouse embryo in one of her creations almost to term. She has also created artificial human wombs by using tissue engineering to grow endometrium cells on a matrix. She experimented for a while with left-over IVF embryos but quit in 2002.
The success of this endeavour is far from certain. The environment of the womb is highly complex and thus far the perfect mix of blood, hormones and proteins which make up the amniotic fluid has eluded researchers. Furthermore the interaction between mother and developing child which affects a baby's personality and character could not be duplicated in an artificial womb. Scientists and ethicists are both sceptical of the value of artificial wombs.
But the possibility is intriguing. Some radical feminists have described it as a way of freeing women from "the tyranny of their sexual- reproductive roles", while others worry that it would make women unnecessary. Some foes of abortion see it as proof of the viability of an aborted foetus. Bioethicists fear that it will make child- bearing a consumer item. Liu sees her work as a way of designing a replacement organ for infertile women who want to bear a child themselves.
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