Incubators From Car Parts

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 17 2008 7:50 AM

Incubators From Car Parts

Hey, Detroit! We have a new job for you.

Just in time to bail out the auto parts suppliers, Madeline Drexler heralds the latest cool new (or is it old?) idea: car-parts incubators . Here's her description of them in yesterday's Science Times :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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The heat source is a pair of headlights. A car door alarm signals emergencies. An auto air filter and fan provide climate control. ... Unlike the notoriously high-maintenance incubators found in neonatal intensive care units in the United States, it is easily repaired, because all of its operational parts come from cars. And while incubators can cost $40,000 or more, this one can be built for less than $1,000. The creators of the car parts incubator ... say it could prevent millions of newborn deaths in the developing world.

We're so used to incubators these days that we've forgotten how radical they are. Their function, Drexler notes, is "providing a warm, clean, womblike environment in which a baby can mature." In short, they're artificial wombs. They don't replicate every function, of course. But for millions of babies who would otherwise die, they replicate enough.

They also destabilize our notions of abortion and infanticide. U.S. abortion laws are organized around viability, the idea that a fetus is entitled to protection when it can survive outside the womb. That's a technical question, and incubators, by creating a kind of womb outside the womb, influence the answer. The earlier they can sustain preemies, the further the line of viability advances.

But that's the fancy far edge of incubator technology. Drexler is talking about something simpler and more immediate: making basic incubation available and functional around the world. Who cares about the latest million-dollar American baby born at 21 weeks when you live in a country where preemies die at 35 weeks? You can't spend that kind of money. You can't even find somebody local to fix a $20,000 incubator. You need an affordable machine that works for most preemies and can be reliably maintained. That's what the car-parts incubator is designed for: babies born at 32 weeks or later.

In the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, we're going to see a big shift in the politics of biotechnology. The conservative preoccupation with technological frontiers will be replaced, for the time being, by a progressive preoccupation with distributive justice. That means less debate about things like future artificial wombs and more attention to things like car-parts incubators. In some ways, it'll be more boring. But tell that to the woman in Indonesia who gets to keep her baby.