In April, a team of physicians and researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia published an eye-catching article in the scientific journal Nature Communications. In it, they described the Biobag, an artificial womb that they successfully used to grow premature lambs to birth weight. The implications of this for human babies are considerable.
Premature birth remains a major cause of infant mortality. Improvements in treatment for extremely preterm babies have, according to the authors of the article, “pushed the limits of viability to 22 to 23 weeks of gestation. However, survival has been achieved with high associated rates of chronic lung disease and other complications of organ immaturity, particularly in infants born before 28 weeks.” The authors hope that their Biobag could be used to improve health and quality-of-life outcomes for extremely early human births.
How we respond to this kind of technological advancement has more to do with how we view science generally than it does with the technology itself. One possible response to the Biobag is to see it as another step toward removing the humanity from humans. An NPR essay quickly moved from the technology to a discussion of Brave New World, a dystopian novel that describes factories where human beings are grown in jars. The researchers behind the Biobag indicate specifically that they do not intend to move in that direction. Instead, they say, “our goal is not to extend the current limits of viability, but rather to offer the potential for improved outcomes for those infants who are already being routinely resuscitated and cared for in neonatal intensive care units.”
Another possible response is unwarranted optimism. As essay about the Biobag published at The Verge is titled, “An artificial womb successfully grew baby sheep—and humans could be next.” But there is a long way to go before any human being is placed in a Biobag. This was a very small scientific study. The researchers only used their full Biobag setup on eight sheep. Additionally, while the apparent health of the lung and brain tissues from these lambs is encouraging, throughout the entire study only one sheep lived through “birth.” This was a cause for serious criticism from the scientific readers responsible for peer-review of the article. The Biobag is a promising step, but to consider it a major medical breakthrough is to overstate the advancement and to put unwarranted hope in the new technology.
Fear, cynicism, and unwarranted optimism. These should be avoided.
When Christians encounter new technology regarding health, genomics, the environment, or space, we should attempt to avoid unhelpful responses. We should avoid fear (what have they done?); our God reigns and is sovereign over both science and scientists. We should avoid cynicism (it is a scam!); the peer-review process for scientific journals is not perfect, but it does a nice job of evaluating the work before publication. We should also avoid unwarranted optimism (technology will save us!); we know where salvation lies, and it is not in a test tube or a Biobag. Fear, cynicism, and unwarranted optimism. These should be avoided.
Instead, a more productive way of encountering such science would be with critical reading (what was done here?). A close examination of the Biobag story shows it to be an important technological step toward addressing a serious medical issue. Critical reading also reveals a small study with mixed results. But the limited scope of the Biobag paper should not stop us from approaching it with thoughtfulness (what do these results mean?). The NPR story referenced above also mentions that the Biobag has the potential to blur what it means to be born. Is the resident of the Biobag a fetus (as the authors of the scientific study describe it) or is it a baby? This interesting question needs to be discussed, considered, and debated before the technology advances to a point that a human is placed into a Biobag.
Finally, we should embrace this kind of technology with gratitude (thanks be to God.) Millions of parents have stood over a tiny incubator while learning of probable life-long complications their little one could face. New mothers and fathers have had to hear the questioning voices in the heart asking would it be better if the baby lived or died. The Biobag takes a small step toward preventing those broken hearts and bringing life—potentially flourishing life—where otherwise death would reign.
Critical analysis, thoughtfulness, and gratitude. These are better things to bring to the conversation. While we await the culmination of God’s promise to wipe every tear, we can praise him for each technological advancement that sounds like an echo of that great day.