Hold onto your ovaries folks, womb transplants are here. Ten UK women have been approved for the procedure, and babies born from donated uteruses could crawl among us as early as next year.
Leaving aside the ethical considerations of womb transplantation, our ability to gestate humans in novel locations is developing so quickly that it’s worth looking ahead to the next development: artificial wombs, or ectogenesis.What would it mean for the uterus – and therefore, the biological necessity of women’s reproductive labour – if it were to become obsolete?
Unlike other contested biotechnologies like human cloning, the demand for surrogacy speaks to a natural community of probable supporters for ectogenesis.
Not having to contend with the biological limitations of ordinary pregnancy would be a gift to those suffering from infertility, gay men, trans women, and many other groups whose longing for children is circumscribed to varying extents. Our cultural understanding of family grows ever more inclusive, and access to reproductive technology could play a large role in supporting that pluralism.
It seems doubtful, in the face of such sympathetic demand, the technology could be completely restricted for too long.
Depending on who uses artificial wombs and under what circumstances, the impacts could be profound, as Samantha Allen argues:
[The] separation of gestation from a woman’s body will have earth-shattering consequences for the contemporary feminist movement ... Ectogenesis will pry open every gendered fault-line in contemporary cultural politics, from workplace politics to the men’s rights movement to an increasingly virulent abortion debate.
The possibility of these profound effects depends less on the technology itself, and more on the ways it would interact with existing social conditions. Put another way, the important thing to analyse is the ends to which ectogenesis might be put – many of them perverse.
Because pregnancy occurs inside the body, it has a level of existing privacy that resists control in societies that value individual rights. This is not to say reproductive justice is an already-existing state of affairs; many jurisdictions exercise shocking power over women’s bodies – especially in the US, where Republicans consistently attempt to make trans-vaginal ultrasounds and other invasive procedures mandatory for women seeking a termination.
Our most accepted rationale for abortion rests on the pregnant person’s right to control over her own body – what we call bodily autonomy. So what happens when it’s possible to extract a foetus from a uterus without killing it, and place it in the WombPro9000 for the remaining gestational period?
This question is explored by academics Vernellia and Tshaka Randall in a 2008 paper that imagines states might intervene on behalf of the unborn baby by enforcing ectogenesis.
Mothers who test positive for drugs are already being thrown in prison for “chemical endangerment”. What if states had the power to remove children from “unfit parents” before birth? It’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be used – like institutionalisation, incarceration, and underpaid employment – to discipline poor and non-white communities, and people with disabilities.
Market forces may also play a role in the use of artificial wombs. The need for women to earn an income already has a big impact on our collective reproductive choices. Many women delay or avoid pregnancy because employment is structured according to the social needs of the male householder, not the working mum.
This is frequently justified on the grounds of individual choice, but the prospect of lost earnings or poverty hardly makes it a free decision.
These pressures also influence our demand for childcare. Artificial wombs might function in a similar way: as a kind of pre-birth childcare, minimising pregnancy’s inconvenient tendency to disrupt employment.
Some women may choose to use ectogenesis because they sincerely want to avoid being pregnant, as Shulamith Firestone imagined in her 1970 radical feminist classic Dialectic of Sex
But for many others, artificial gestation may become an economic necessity if it costs less than an ordinary pregnancy. From an employer’s perspective, pregnancy and childbirth represent massive external costs that can’t be rationalised out of existence (until they can).
At the risk of sounding like I’ve watched Gattaca one too many times, economic rationalisation and technological innovation have transformed and corroded institutions like the nuclear family, the school and the church in the pursuit of economic growth.
Why shouldn’t these forces continue to do the same to the bodies of women? Artificial wombs might be just the sort of tool that would allow the state and the market to completely subsume one of the most sacred human activities into the logic of efficiency, without the messy mum-to-be part getting in the way.A regime like this might eventually come to regard “natural” in utero pregnancies like our culture regards homebirth: a risky option, the preserve of extreme hippies who do it on purpose, poor people who are to be pitied, and sensational, accidental borderline cases.
Visible pregnancies may eventually become novel or even stigmatised, associated with poverty, ignorance or irresponsibility. In other words: pregnancy is about to be disrupted, and we should be ready for it when it happens.