Giving birth in outer space: Implications

Will giving birth in outer space be different from earth? Scientists have studied a lot of pregnant animals in space, including salamanders, fish, and rats, but not humans. Over 60 women have travelled to space, yet none were pregnant during the trip, let alone gave birth while floating in zero gravity.

Delivering a child in microgravity may sound like science fiction. But for one start-up, it’s the future. SpaceLife Origin, based in the Netherlands, wants to send a pregnant woman, accompanied by a “trained, world-class medical team,” in a capsule to the space above Earth. The mission would last 24 to 36 hours. Once the woman delivered the child, the capsule would return to the ground. “A carefully prepared and monitored process will reduce all possible risks, similar to Western standards as they exist on Earth for both mother and child,” SpaceLife Origin’s website states. The company has set the year 2024 as the target date for the trip.

The logical question is why? Egbert Edelbroek, one of the company’s executives, says spacefaring childbirth is part of creating an insurance policy for the human species. Should a catastrophe someday render Earth unlivable—climate change, Edelbroek suspects—he hopes the human species will move off-world and settle elsewhere. Wherever they land, they will plant roots, build homes, and start families. “Human settlements outside of Earth would be pretty pointless without learning how to reproduce in space,” Edelbroek says.

Let’s say Edelbroek gets all three: money, a rocket, and a volunteer. What happens then?

Long before anyone gets off the ground, SpaceLife Origin will face a barrage of questions from regulatory authorities, perhaps even from more than one nation. Commercial space travel is not confined by national borders, and it’s not uncommon for customers in one country to pay the government of another to launch their payloads. SpaceLife Origin’s ambitious mission could include an American woman, in a Japanese capsule, on an Indian rocket, accompanied by a team of doctors from multiple nations.

In this scenario, it’s difficult to say who will regulate what. The pregnant woman’s actions may be subject to regulation, too. In the United States, women are arrested for leaving their kids unattended, shamed for apparently putting young children in danger. Space is far more dangerous than the sidewalk outside a store. Would the law consider a woman’s decision to give birth there a criminal act?

Even if SpaceLife Origin finds a willing participant—and Edelbroek stresses that she will be calling the shots—would it be ethical for the company to send her? The doctors who would supposedly accompany her, too, might risk violating the physician’s oath: “First, do no harm.” It seems difficult to make the case that helping launch a pregnant woman into space follows this promise.

“Most of the pregnant women I know feel great comfort in knowing that they have access to medical help if there’s an issue during a delivery—or prior to a delivery, or after a delivery,” says Virginia Wotring, a professor of space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “Putting people in a situation where they are many, many, many miles away from medical help does not seem to be advisable.”

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the question of how SpaceLife will time labour contractions with a rocket launch to get their participant into space just in time for delivery. Astronauts usually experience three times the force of gravity during the ascent to orbit. In the case of a botched launch and emergency landing, that force triples. It’s unclear what effect such extreme pressure could have on a pregnant person.

There’s little in the literature to guide us on what may transpire in orbit. Experiments on reproduction have been conducted in space, but they have been limited to mice, fish, lizards, and invertebrates. In the 1990s, pregnant rats gave birth after a week on a U.S. space shuttle mission. Each rat pup was born with an underdeveloped vestibular system, the inner-ear structure that allows mammals to balance and orient themselves. As scientists suspected, the absence of gravity had thrown the pups off-kilter. The animals’ sense of balance recovered not long after birth, but the lesson was clear: Animal infants need gravity.

Imagine childbirth without it. The expectant woman would be unable to take walks to ease the pain of labour, to take advantage of gravity’s downward tug as she pushed. The thought of administering an epidural seems terrifying; the anesthesiologist would have to make sure her patient didn’t float away as she carefully weaved a needle toward the spinal cord. Bodily fluids would clump into blobs and glide through the capsule.

When the time came, the baby’s first breaths would suck in the air of a sealed metal box, composed of oxygen made by complex artificial systems, not plant life.  “A baby might be breathing a gas mixture that is different from Earth air,” Wotring said. “Adult humans seem to handle it just fine, but if you’re using your lungs for the very first time, would it make a difference? I don’t know.”

After the delivery is over, mom and baby would have to survive the descent back to Earth. For current astronauts, that involves a bone-rattling free fall through the atmosphere, followed by a parachute landing in the Kazakh desert. On the ground, the team would be faced with yet another unusual question: Where do you get a birth certificate for someone born in space? Well, if the baby is born on a space station/ship/base of a country that operates under the Jus Sanguinis model, that baby will most likely inherit the citizenship of his or her parents. (The Jus sanguinis (Latin: right of blood) is a principle of nationality law by which citizenship is not determined by place of birth but by having one or both parents who are citizens of the state. Children at birth may automatically be citizens if their parents have state citizenship or national identities of ethnic, cultural, or other origins. Citizenship can also apply to children whose parents belong to a diaspora and were not themselves citizens of the state conferring citizenship. This principle contrasts with jus soli (Latin: right of soil).

Perhaps the children will be nationals of the spacecraft where there are born as under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, for the purposes of determining the obligations under the convention, birth on a ship or aircraft in international waters or airspace shall be treated as a birth in the country of the ship or aircraft’s registration.

Gene Mutation?

With all of this talk of future space colonies and cities on Mars, there’s a good chance that one day some lady will take up the offer to give birth somewhere beyond Earth, and that brings up some interesting questions. What will it be like? How will space babies look? And ultimately, how will giving birth in space be different?

The most obvious difference is the low-gravity environment, and without the aid of Earth’s gravitational pull, it might make it more difficult for the mother when it comes time to push the baby out. Plus, if one day women lived in space permanently, some of the risks of pregnancy would be much greater than on Earth.

For one, without the stress of Earth’s gravity, her bones lose density. Studies show that astronauts, for instance, lose 1% to 2% of their bone density for every month spent in space, and that would be especially concerning for giving birth because the pelvis could fracture in the process. In fact, doctors recommend that women with brittle bones avoid a natural birth altogether, which could mean births in space would be left to other methods.

That could lead to an increased reliance on C-sections for childbirth for people living in space. We already know that the way we give birth influences our anatomy. For example, the size of our heads is restricted by the size of our mothers’ birth canals. Scott Solomon, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Rice University while discussing what space might do to generations of humans born in low-gravity environments submits that with more C-sections, our descendants could have larger heads because they wouldn’t be constrained by the size of the birth canal.

He also believes that humans may also change colour. That’s because in space we have less protection against harmful space radiation like cosmic rays, so to counteract that, humans may evolve new types of skin pigments, like the melanin that protects our skin from ultraviolet sunlight on Earth. That could mean that future generations living beyond Earth will evolve to have different skin colours.

The more melanin you have, the darker your skin. So Solomon predicts that people living in space may develop darker skin over time. But he says these changes might take centuries or millennia for enough time for many generations of women to give birth in space.

Is it possible that eventually, people living in space could evolve to be different enough from people on Earth that we would consider them to be different species?

We can only speculate until one very brave woman decides to pave the path.

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