Becoming Independent: Artificial Wombs and What They Mean for Women

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When it comes to gender equality there’s an emerging technology that might be the key to many of our social dilemmas

Kantian ethics tells us never to treat another person as means to an end, yet women have it inscribed in their biology to serve as means towards another human being. We all know childbearing involves sacrifices, but we rarely contemplate just how secondary a woman’s self becomes. For 9 months, women turn into fragile vessels whose purpose is to carry another human being, and by having their bodies, habits, and emotions fundamentally alteredthey give up a lot of their very personhood for someone else’s sake. There’s a reason why mothers keep telling us how much they’ve sacrificed to have us.

We’ve never questioned the morality or fairness of this fact of life. As if to disguise its agonising pains and life-stopping inconveniences, we’ve glorified and exalted pregnancy to an almost religious degree. The ‘miracle‘ of giving birth is supposed to be the best thing that ever happened to a woman. In that one moment when you hold your baby for the first time, your life is said to finally gain meaning.

Conversely, of course, we’ve criticised women who are afraid of giving birth, choose not to have children, or just dare speak of pregnancy as anything short of awe-inspiring.

Technology often creates moral issues rather than solving them, but when it comes to gender equality there’s an emerging technology that might be the key to many of our social dilemmas: artificial wombs.

The technology of artificial wombs would allow for ectogenesis to take place. Ectogenesis is a somewhat cold, clinical name for the wonderful possibility of having a baby grow outside one’s body. This could well be the ultimate step in women’s liberation. By removing this biological, fundamental impediment, women might finally function in and for themselves, as autonomous individuals just as focussed on their own personal fulfillment as men have always been.

It’s understandable that people would form an ‘un-natural’, Brave New World-ish picture in their minds and resist it. With any futuristic technology, there’s always the danger of mishandling it terribly once it becomes a reality. But as I hope to show, many of the arguments against ectogenesis (including those of some renowned feminists) are factually unsustainable or have more to do with prejudice and fear.

What is ectogenesis & how is it possible?

In short, ectogenesis is the possibility of birth (genesis, in Greek) outside (ecto) of one’s body. It has been the focus of at least two scientists:  Yoshinori Kuwabara, chairman of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department at Juntendo University, and Dr. Helen Liu, a researcher at Cornell University’s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility. Kuwabara’s focus was saving premature babies, and in the process he’s grown a goat fetus inside an incubator that reproduced the uterus and placenta, together with amniotic fluid and blood supply. The goat fetus developed for 21 days, and although it had to be stopped due to some technical faults, the baby goat was successfully ‘delivered’ four days shy of full term. Equally impressive is Dr. Liu’s achievement of growing a human embryo for 10 days in a wholly artificial womb.

By removing this biological, fundamental impediment, women might finally function in and for themselves

Dr. Liu pioneered a technique called ‘co-culture’, where she grew an embryo and uterine tissue together, and developed an artificial human uterus using endometrial cells grown over a uterus-shaped scaffolding. She had to cease the experiments because of the 14-day regulation on human embryo research, but she carried on experimenting with mice, which she too carried in a fully artificial womb 4 days before a full term. Dr. Liu unapologetically makes developing an embryo and then a human being in an artificial womb ―her “final goal“. In her own words, “I want to see whether I can develop an actual external device with this endometrium cell and then probably with a computer system simulate the feed in medium, feed out medium . . . and also have a chip controlling the hormone level.”

For a more detailed overview of the technicalities involved in building an artificial uterus, here’s a very informative read.

The fears

Probably the most pervasive counter-argument is this: artificial wombs would sever the connection between mother and fetus, thus compromising the future baby’s physical health and/or psychological wellbeing.

As prominent ethicists Peter Singer and Deane Wells argue, we’re confronted with the same issue that IVF technology faced in its beginnings. The success of animal experiments were the only and sufficient reason why IVF was okayed for humans. If baby cattle were healthy, there was no reason to suspect human babies wouldn’t be as well. With ectogenesis, if a baby goat was successfully delivered and continued to live healthily, shouldn’t we accept the idea that human babies would be healthy as well?

Of course, even if we were certain that an ectogenetic child would be physically healthy, we still couldn’t be sure it will develop normally from a psychological viewpoint as well. Animal studies, unfortunately, aren’t of much help here. We simply cannot know with certainty, and experimenting with someone’s psychological wellness is unethical.

Does not knowing for sure mean we shouldn’t try to find out? If we need to be certain before we make any further experiments, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of experimenting? Singer and Wells suggest we break this circle by doing a sort of ‘gradual’ experimenting. We have already started to save premature babies by incubating them at a gradually earlier stage. We need to back this up with mental and psychological testing of the prematurely born babies at a relevant age – perhaps 6 years. If these tests turn out fine, we can move the incubating time even earlier in the pregnancy, and so on. This way we avoid unethical experimentation and we might have achieved full ectogenesis in a few decades.

The mother-child bond

While it’s true that a healthy, loving connection with one’s child is crucial for their mental and emotional development, we should also be aware that we’ve idealised the mother-child bond and formed a mental picture of motherhood that’s ridden with gender stereotypes. We need to make sure our biases don’t stand in the way of critical enquiry and moral progress.

The Internet is rife with advice and imperatives telling expecting mothers what they’re supposed to feel for their baby and what they can do to fix whatever’s wrong with them if they fall short of the expectations.

In reality, a good 20% of women do not feel any emotional connection with their baby. This means to one in five women their baby feels like a complete stranger. And that’s when they hold it in their arms and it looks like a human being; books like What to Expect insist you should feel immense love and great familiarity even since before your baby is born. (For a poignant and honest account of some of the less happy thoughts a pregnant woman can experience, this blog post is a reassuring read.)

The mother-child bond is a far less ‘natural’ feeling than what our social constructs would have us believe, in the sense that it’s not nearly as effortless or instantaneous. As one mother puts it, for some women the love they later develop for their children “doesn’t happen in the womb, no matter what any Fertility Goddess friends or exuberant pregnancy books say about the bond between a pregnant woman and the unborn or newborn child.”

Most of what has been written on the almost mythical subject of mother-child connection regards, in fact, the post-natal care the baby receives. The affectionate parent-child communication, the face-to-face interaction, touching, lullaby singing & storytelling – all shape the future adult’s sense of security, their ability to cope with stress, anxiety and generally how they’ll manage relationships and attachment. This period of bonding happens however after birth, with an established body of research defining it from the first minutes of an infant’s birth and continuing throughout their first week of life (Klaus and Kennel 1976, Feldman 1978). Other research acknowledges this period as starting around birth and continuing for up to two months in the child’s development as the most significant (Leckman et al. 1999).

As for the pre-natal period, there are indeed studies that suggest elements of the intrauterine environment might influence an infant’s later development. However, these elements were studied in conjunction with the post-natal environment, and their precise nature or how they influence behaviour is still to be determined. But this obviously goes for real wombs too. Shouldn’t we let mothers carry babies anymore because, well, we don’t know precisely how their intrauterine environment affects the fetus?

Perhaps we shouldn’t. Given women’s (still precarious) emancipation, a lot of mothers-to-be work until their water breaks. If the child’s optimum psychological wellbeing is our ultimate goal, then surely we should be concerned with the wide range of stressors a fetus is subjected to when inside a working woman’s womb.

We’re subjecting technology to much harsher, scrutinising looks, because it’s not ‘natural’. Technology is man-made and humans are prone to error. Though it’s reasonable to be wary of human fallibility, we must remember that nature is not “perfect” either. The pain women are subjected to when giving birth is just one of countless examples of nature’s imperfections.

External wombs would help parents love their children for ‘their own sake’

Pregnancy in its entirety is far from a perfect process. Stress, of course, is not only caused by deadlines and excel reports, it can also come from a mother’s general emotional state, if she’s unhappy or worried or feels emotionally neglected, there’s a strong chance high levels of cortisol will impact the baby, and that’s far from ideal. These are, evidently, some of the reasons we’ve treated women differently in the first place. But rather than perceiving women as frail creatures and denying them access to work or a normal lifestyle, wouldn’t it be better to liberate them from the burden of pregnancy altogether? As for the baby, wouldn’t it be better for it to develop in a supervised, caring environment, freed of day-to-day stress and optimised for its maximum wellbeing?

 Mothers, anxiety, and a-wombs

In 1956, D.W. Winnicott came up with the concept of “primary maternal preoccupations”. It was used to describe a state of alertness and hyper-sensitivity that a woman experiences throughout and especially towards the end of her pregnancy. Winnicott referred to this state as almost an illness, in fact he literally wrote it would be considered an illness ‘were it not for the fact of pregnancy’. However he still recognises the evolutionary value of such a state, the mother’s acute sensitivity to her baby’s needs allowing her to create the perfect environment for her offspring’s development.

Whether such a syndrome in fact exists is as disputable as any other psychiatric claim, but many would argue that it’s in the nature of motherhood to be hyper-alert to their child’s every movement. Many mothers continue to feel this way throughout their child’s teenage and even adult years. Many of us have had the experience of overbearing mothers, who still want to protect us by controlling our actions even as adults.

Feminists such as Shulamith Firestone wrote about this, and embraced artificial wombs more than 40 years ago. To her, external wombs were the solution for what she considered to be possessive mothering. “A mother who undergoes a nine-month pregnancy is likely to feel that the product of all that pain and discomfort ‘belongs’ to her (To think of what I went through to have you!).” Firestone believed that external wombs would help parents love their children for ‘their own sake’.

As many feminists have pointed out, there’s a lot of social pressure on the mother to be close to the child, and this is likely to impact a mother’s mental wellbeing. In the words of R. Kukla, “over-valuing proximity produces an unbalanced insistence that women stay near their children and induces guilt in them when they do not.” In this regard, external wombs might bring some beneficial distance.

I think the ability to have children with fewer sacrifices can only bring health and balance to the parent-child relationship. Coupled with the possibility to plan a child much later in life, ectogenesis could drastically lower feelings of frustration otherwise widely reported by new parents.

Artificial wombs and feminism

Firestone is a feminist who embraced artificial wombs well before goat fetuses or human embryo experiments. But ‘feminists’, on the whole, are far from being unanimously in favour of it. Andrea Dworkin, Robyn Rowland or Janice Raymond think ectogenesis will lead to the complete obliteration of women. The womb is women’s main “currency” for these theorists, and embracing this technology would mean giving away their unique privilege. Even in the most woman-hating cultures, the argument goes, women are at least spared in the promise that they will give birth to a son.

By reasoning this way however, the only thing we’re achieving is to adopt the oppressor’s way of thinking. I suggest that this logic perpetuates the very women-hating culture it vows to eradicate.

We could replace ‘the privilege of pregnancy’ with the ‘privilege’ of being seen as a sex object. If oppressive tyrants wouldn’t kill women simply for the fact that they enjoy their sexual favours, certainly we wouldn’t deduce that being treated as a sex object is okay.

Gestation should not be women’s ultimate privilege, it should not be the sole thing that makes them valuable – in fact, it should not make them valuable at all. Gestation is nothing more than a biological function, it doesn’t make us better or worse people. Pregnancy just happens, a lot of the times against our will, and although we can aid it in various ways, it’s rarely a chance for the mothers to showcase their unique abilities, talents or skills. Unlike parenting, pregnancy, in itself, cannot be an art.

Despite its numerous dissenting nuances, feminism, at its core, has been fighting for women to be recognised as human beings, to give them back autonomy, dignity, and the fundamental human right to pursue their happiness without impediments. However, many mothers still don’t find it easy to build a self-sufficient identity separate from their infant. ‘Social pressures on pregnant women and new mothers undermine their sense of agency altogether, preventing them from having any interests of their own.’

Men are routinely discriminated against in custody matters; external wombs could mean the chance to split parenthood equally

By rejecting a technology that could liberate women from this, on the grounds that there are cultures where women are only considered valuable as means towards another (usually male) human being – we’re essentially saying we can keep oppressing women because society oppresses women. We’re saying we shouldn’t change the appalling status quo because the status quo is appalling. This circular bit of logic seems to put stagnancy where progress should be, and feminists who support it adamantly cling to the status of woman as victim rather than choosing to be active, dynamic agents of change.

I don’t intend, by any means, to diminish the complex political issues a-wombs will raise. We should definitely be concerned with who will get their hands on this extremely powerful instrument, and whether they will use it as a tool for liberation or oppression. As Soraya Chemaly argues, we still live in a man’s world, and we must make sure that those in power will empathise with women’s concerns, so that a Handmaide’s Tale scenario is successfully dodged. But I’d also like to point out ectogenesis could be a unique opportunity for equality and cooperation between genders.

Sexism and heteronormativity hurt straight fathers, gay couples and transgender people as much as women. As a result of the toxic, biology-infused moral half-judgement that mothers are essential to child rearing whereas fathers are disposable, men are routinely discriminated against in custody matters. External wombs could mean the chance to split parenthood equally, from both a practical and legal perspective. The wombs might at first be found in dedicated medical units, but it’s easy to imagine a near future where wombs are kept at home, equally tended to by men and women, cisgender or of a non-binary gender, either in heterosexual or gay relationships.

A-wombs might be the opportunity to finally eradicate the toxic myth that women are inseparable from their babies—which is why they should stay at home and renounce their own ambitions—while fathers are useless when it comes to loving and caring for another being, which is why they can orbit vagrantly around the household, with providing financially as their sole duty.

Despite my overt enthusiasm for artificial wombs, it’s difficult to flatly say they will be ‘good for women’. ‘Women’ are not uniform, and neither will be the distribution of new technology. As long as there are gaps between poor women and rich women, racially discriminated women and white privileged women, straight, gay or transgender women—there will be disparity in the way a-wombs are owned and administered.

These, however, are not reasons for rejecting artificial wombs, but for having a discussion about them before they become a reality.

In lieu of a conclusion

We need to make sure we’ve started a debate. We’re evidently free to reject ectogenesis, but we need to make sure that we’re not doing so on the wrong grounds; that we’re not passing up an auspicious moment for gender equality because of half-baked ethical judgements, moral superstitions, ancient myths of hubris, or internalised oppression. External wombs could be liberating, but freedom can be frightening, so it’s completely understandable to view this novelty with apprehension, and desirable to treat it with caution. But we need not, and should not, just passively accept our limits, be they social or biological. That’s simply not how progress is made.


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