'Baby-in-a-bag' is changing women's minds about having kids

'Baby-in-a-bag' is changing women's minds about having kids

CultureApril 27, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

Given that one of the most common reasons women — especially millennials — don't want kids, is fear of the pregnancy and childbirth process. It would be really great if someone could develop a way for people to give birth without actually having to give birth. 

A good old fashioned artificial womb would do the trick. You know, a place where you could grow and develop your embryo without the occasional, horrific realization that not only is there a human inside you, but that you'll have to push said human out of your body through a tiny hole in your cervix in order to get it out?

Luckily for vagina owners everywhere, a group of U.S. researchers are attempting to solve that problem with the development of just that — an artificial womb where zygotes can blossom into babies far away from people's lady parts.

Sometimes called "biobags," these off-site wombs are currently approved for the purpose of keeping premature lambs alive outside the bodies of their mothers. However, their potential for human use represents a big step forward for the future of embryonic development.

A human-friendly biobag that would provide desperately needed help to the 30,000 pre-term babies born in the U.S. every year is currently being developed as we speak. It's a technology that's sorely needed — preemies who are born before 23 weeks have an inordinately high morbidity and mortality rate, and, if they survive, their prematurity can have lasting negative health effects in adulthood. Today, they're kept alive using incubators, but these fall short in providing the correct developmental environment. What premature babies need is not air, bright lights and a million tubes like they'd get in an incubator — they need the warm, saline-like amniotic fluid of their mothers, which is crucial for warding off infections and providing the ideal environment for babies to grow in. Biobags filled with a synthetic version of this substance could keep premature babies alive long enough to develop as they would if they were still in utero.

However, the same technology could also be of use to embryos younger than 23 weeks. This is where we get into childbirth-free reproduction — the amniotic biobags could offer a temporary home for fertilized embryos where they can grow and develop in the same conditions they would inside their mother's body. This could be crucial for women who are unable to conceive naturally due to illness or malformations, but could also be a vital option for the millions of women who don't want to give birth.

But ... how viable of an option is that, actually? Would women really change their minds about having kids if they could simply grow said kids extra-corporally? After talking to a few women we know who don't want kids, it seems they might.

"If there was a way for me to get away with having a baby without having to grow one inside of me, I'd be so down," Rachel, a 27-year-old music supervisor tells us. "One of the biggest barriers to starting a family for me is just a general disinterest in the pain and process of pregnancy and giving birth, so anything that could circumvent that experience would be really helpful."

Anna, a 28-year-old public defender, says her mom went through hell giving birth to her younger brother and her. She had an episiotemy (a surgical procedure that cuts the wall between the vagina and anus) in order to get her out, and a C-section to give birth to her brother. Her grandmother, whose hips were too narrow to pass a baby, also had an invasive surgery to give birth to her aunt.

"After hearing about what my family has been through, it seems like a biobag would be a good option for me," she says. "If I could afford it, I'd definitely prefer that over natural childbirth."

Not everyone agrees, though.

Natalie, who's already had one child, tells us: "I wouldn't change one thing about giving birth. It was hell and I wouldn't wish that pain on anybody, but there's no substitute for the bonding you get with a child when they spend nine months inside of you. I would feel so disconnected from by baby, seeing it develop in a biobag. Part of intense love you feel for your child is what you go through during pregnancy with it."

Ladies of the former persuasion don't get off scoff-free, though. Since this technology is designed to incubate fertilized embryos, not actually fertilize them, women would still have to undergo some type of procedure to transplant their embryos from their uterui to the biobag. That sounds about as fun as getting your toes charred like lil' hot dogs over an open flame, but for a lot of women who are both physically incapacitated or unwilling to give birth, it might be better than pushing an eight-pound human through their vaginas.

Sasha, another woman we talked to, sums it up well, saying, "Women have been giving birth vaginally since the dawn of time, but until the 20th century, childbirth was the leading cause of death for females. Now we have medical technology to combat that, but people's physiology hasn't changed. It's hard to fit a watermelon through a pinhole. Technology exists to help us improve upon our own physical limitations, and there's nothing wrong with using it if that's what you want for yourself and your body. That's your choice and your right."

Don't expect to see the human biobag in neonatal units anytime soon, though. Human trials are still 3-5 years off depending on when they get approval, and even after that happens, it's likely they'll have to undergo rigorous scrutinization to see if they're even ethically sound (one doesn't have to imagine too hard that certain religious groups would oppose this sort of reproduction). It might be years before you can put your uterus to rest, but in the meantime, there's always surrogates, adoption and ... just giving up altogether and buying a house plant.