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Monday, March 30, 2009

Science in Fiction: The Uterine Replicator

What: The uterine replicator

Invented by: Louis McMaster Bujold for the Vorkosigan Saga. It originally appears in Shards of Honor and which holds a pivotal role in several of the stories in this universe.

In Other Fiction: The first one that comes to mind is in The Many Colored Land by Julian May. There is something similar in the Matriz series, although it's a full-body, full-life type of commitment. I use something similar in a few of my sci-fi works, and I'm sure variations have appeared elsewhere. Feel free to add to the list in the comment section.

What It Does: The uterine replicator allows a child to be raised from original blastocyst to full gestation without being inside the mother. It's a surrogate uterus, really. An invention that removes all the problems accompanied by pregnancy and natural childbirth, and even the need for a fully alive female. All you need is some cells scrapped off the wall.

Is There Anything Like It? Not yet. I can see this being wildly popular though. Any couple struggling with infertility, any mother who has health complications, any mother who has miscarried... oh, yes, there is a market there no doubt. I don't think I've met a woman who has gone through a full-term pregnancy that wouldn't trade in for one of these. Yes, that first flutter of kicks is precious. It's a lot less precious when your belly moves like something out of the original Alien movies and fingernails are scraping your insides. You might still have a few people who try natural birth in a haze of romanticism, but if there is a healthier alternative than humanity would adapt.

How Soon Will We See One? Not in the next few decades. The problem is as much scientific as it is ethical and moral. There was news recently about the first genetically altered embryo (not brought to gestation) and something like a uterine replicator would only encourage that kind of thing. It's too tempting for a scientist to move past cleaning "bad" genes and erasing genetic defects to cleaning unwanted genes and "perfecting" the little human-to-be.

Before technology like this can be developed we need to, as a species, develop some laws that say what is right and wrong in the terms of genetic advancement. It hasn't been an issue before, not on this level. Before the genetic technologies we have now were developed the only way to influence the child was to set up a breeding program. It's happened. Most royal lines started out as a way of keeping Royal Blood in the family. Hitler tried it. Caste systems enforce it. Various religions enforce preferred breeding by stating that couples shouldn't marry between religions. So it isn't new, it's just not thought about in terms of a breeding program. No ones likes to think of themselves as cattle.

With new genetic understanding and the ability to tinker with genes humanity now needs to decide how far is too far. It seems pretty obvious that sorting cells so that a life-threatening condition isn't passed on is a good thing. But how far past that can you ethically go? And what punishment is there for passing that boundary? The current law does nothing to the scientist but kills the fetus, which seems unfair to me. It isn't the kid's fault! Until that gets sorted out the advancements CAN'T be made. No one will have the permission to try.

What Is The Science Behind This? The basic idea behind the uterine replicator is that a fetus would be removed from the womb by convincing the placenta to detach like it would during natural child-birth and reattach to a new matrix. Or you could implant the fetus from a test tube like we now do with artificial insemination. What you need is a broth to raise the baby in that is pH balanced and nutrient rich, a way to provide warmth, and a way to keep all the chemical levels right. We'll see that developed when scientists are allowed to raise a child entirely in glass. And we won't see that until the ethics are sorted out.

On the other end, I think the placenta removal should be fairly easy to work out. Women go into preterm labor all the time. If we don't know how to start that, we will soon. The trick is detaching the placenta without ruining it.

Where Will It Start? I expect the first cases of a child raised in something like the uterine replicator will be infertile couples or cases where the mother can not carry the child to term because of illness or accident. It will be a decade or more before the UR goes into common use. That's a guess, I really can't see into the future.

You Vote: Will we ever have these? Would you like one? Or is this a Really Bad Idea?


  1. I don't think it's a bad idea. Not if it helps people. But I can see it turning bad on moral grounds. Are you putting one of these in one of your books? *smiles*

  2. In the ViS series the Finns have something that allows them to raise children like this. They usually don't use them instead of natural pregnancy, but it is used as an alternative to abortion. Rather than abort, the fetus is placed in the machine and adopted out to the Finns.

  3. If it was to save abortion, then yes. Otherwise, no :)

  4. You're forgetting the use of such a device by less-than-moral people, who would then enslave the newborn or worse, sell them on the black market. As much as I'd rather not think about it, my first thought upon reading this post was an image of child molesters/pornographers/slave rings figuring out a way to turn this thing into a fully-fledged industry. Unfortunately, humanity usually has a way to corrupt a good idea, even if the initial purpose is good. Damn I sound cynical this morning. Sorry, must be bad diet coke.

  5. Eric- actually, that idea is brought up and dealt with in the series. Which is why, nice as this invention sounds, we need some regulations in place before it can happen.

    Most medical tools are like that, they can save so many lives, but they can also be abused terribly.