The Atlantic recently reported the successful gestation of a premature lamb in an artificial womb. Taking the fetuses of lambs with an equivalent level of development to a 23-week-old human fetus, they gestated the lambs in a special clear bag filled with an artificial amniotic fluid.
Although this technology is still at an early stage of development, it offers an exciting and welcome possibility for the care of premature infants in the future. The advent of such technologies will enable us to save lives that formerly would have been lost, and to minimize the harm to infants who are thrust too early from the womb. These are good reasons to be thankful for such an innovation.
Beyond the boon it represents for premature infants, many also believe such artificial gestation will significantly affect the abortion debate. Babies that would not previously have been viable outside of the womb will become viable, which will weigh in favor of restricting abortions at earlier stages in pregnancy. Arguments from the autonomy of the woman’s body will no longer have the same force when the child could be relocated to an artificial womb outside her body. At some point, one could imagine a woman’s position relative to her unborn child being closer to that of her male partner. Should the male partner desire not to terminate the pregnancy, the infant could be relocated to an artificial womb, and the mother would have to assume future responsibilities of care and provision.
Although such a scenario is hypothetical at this point, one of the most significant early changes will be in the “optics” of the abortion issue. Historically, this debate has been dramatically affected by technological advances in imaging the baby within the womb. The sight of the developing child, which the artificial womb will permit, may make depersonalizing and objectifying the unborn much more difficult. The invisibility of the unborn is one of the reasons why abortion is so thinkable in our society.
The invisibility of the unborn is one of the reasons why abortion is so thinkable in our society.
On account of the initial effect it might have on the abortion debate, I suspect many pro-life people will welcome such artificial gestation technology. Yet while there may be beneficial effects of this technology in the short term, for many people this technology represents an early step toward something different entirely.
Tyranny of Childbearing?
In her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone argued that women’s biology is a tyrannical force suppressing them in society. She called for technology to take the childbearing role from women, so that women could achieve their full potential. A socialist society would distribute parenting duties equally, so that women no longer bore disproportionate responsibility for raising children, and parents no longer had the unhealthy notion of “their” children. The “psychologically destructive” reality of genetic parenthood—a single biological mother and a father—would be replaced by “the diffusion of the responsibility for physical welfare over a larger number of people.” Bonds between children and adults would be marked by mutual agreement, and children would no longer have a particular attachment with their mothers. Society would be characterized by temporary nonfamilial household contracts with “consenting adults” and an officious socialist state.
Firestone lamented that developing an artificial placenta—potential deliverance from the tyranny of nature, the ground of female inequality in society—still had to be justified on the basis of providing care to premature infants. Within such technology, she saw something more profound: the liberation of women from the barbarism of their natural bodies.
I suspect most will find Firestone’s vision more monstrous than attractive. Yet she represents an extreme form of a transhumanist vision that, in more moderate strains, already has considerable traction within our society. The intense physical bond between mother and infant is one of the most stubborn obstacles to an egalitarian and individualistic society:
- It represents what is perhaps the most defining difference between the sexes.
- It is largely responsible for the failure of women to achieve similar economic outcomes to men.
- It is in profound tension with the logic of autonomous choice and cannot easily be squared with individualism.
- It privileges the male and female union over same-sex relationships. It supports sexist biological understandings of parenthood—“mother” and “father”—over fluid and gender-neutral models of “parenting.”
- It grounds womanly identity in the female body in ways that support oppressive myths that bind women to their children and that also marginalize transwomen.
In these and many other ways, pregnancy and the womb represent problems for our society. Technologies enabling us to circumvent or outmode natural pregnancy would, no doubt, be lauded by many as a movement in the direction of equality.
I believe we’re justified in questioning the accuracy of prognostications from figures such as Henry Greely, who argue that, in 20 to 40 years’ time, most Americans won’t have sex to reproduce. While such a future might not arrive as quickly as supposed, if at all, Greely and others are alert to a potential horizon on a road down which our culture is heading.
From Begetting to Making
The initial adoption of such technologies would probably be reticent and limited. Having been employed as an option for women who couldn’t bear their children in their own wombs, it might also be pursued as an alternative to surrogacy for some gay couples. To many this would seem to be a win-win: The cause of LGBT equality would be advanced, and the somewhat distasteful practice of surrogacy could be abandoned. The case for abortion has rested heavily on the pathologizing of pregnancy, and ectogenetic technologies would provide a way to deliver women from the condition, much as oral contraception has helped to deliver them from unchosen conception. That this would enable women’s greater achievement in the economic arena would be a further argument in favor.
The artificial womb would also greatly increase our ability to both monitor and also intervene in the development of the unborn infant. Coupled with the normalization of genetic screening and “optimization” of embryos (whether by selecting the most promising or by intervening to minimize genetic susceptibility to disabilities), it could be perceived to increase the possibilities for “less invasive” medical care of the unborn and to empower parents to give their kids every possible chance of success. Acceptance of the technology would grow incrementally, as the underlying principles of our current cultural vision unfolded in law and the public’s moral imagination—and the technologies themselves—became more dependable and familiar. The days of “natural” conception and childbearing being the most effective way of producing physically healthy children are most likely numbered. When they run out, we should expect increasing social and moral pressure and stigma to be placed upon couples who choose—for when technology allows us to circumvent nature, nature itself comes to be seen as a choice—to conceive and bear children naturally.
It’s important both to consider that ectogenesis would represented a critical step in the shift from begetting children to making them, and that we are already some way down this path on account of our cultural acceptance and normalization of contraception, abortion, IVF, and same-sex marriage. With each step, the associated logic carries greater power. For instance, natural sexual relations, conception, and gestation—within the context of a committed relationship—aren’t merely something we do in light of our beliefs about the humanity of the unborn. They are also means by which we perceive that humanity in the first place. The more that embryos are produced outside the intimacy of the woman’s body and outside the context of a loving interpersonal act only indirectly aimed at the end of procreation, the easier it is to view the embryo as mere biological material to be treated accordingly.
As I’ve maintained elsewhere, progressivism is transhumanist in its logic and fundamentally conflicts with nature. As the technology catches up, and its logic further leavens the social imaginary, we should expect progressivist ideology to yield ever more intimate assaults on human nature itself.
Here are seven areas where human nature is threatened by such developments.
Seven Dangers of Ectogenesis
First, ectogenesis will further enable the detachment of women from their bodies’ natural fertility, and further enable their fuller “liberation” from reproduction into greater conformity to the economic system of production. The generational logic of begetting is weak in our society. Rather, our society is controlled by an ever-strengthening autonomous logic of power and will, faithful to nothing beyond its own maximization. Women have always been a problem for the logic of autonomous abstract power, not least because their most characteristic labor is inalienable and resistant to economic abstraction.
Our culture perceives the ‘potential’ of women largely in terms of their liberation from their nature, rather than in their flourishing within the inherent directionality and order of that nature.
Ectogenesis would be one of the most important steps in the “manning” of women. It is important to notice that our culture perceives the “potential” of women largely in terms of their liberation from their nature, rather than in their flourishing within the inherent directionality and order of that nature. Conquering and optimizing humanity—breaking the natural structure of humanity down into tractable and malleable “raw material” for rule and profit—has also all too often been the underlying tendency of state and economy.
Second, although resistance to abortion may initially grow as the unborn become more visible, as ectogenesis further empowers the logic of making and choosing with regard to children, it will ultimately reinforce the instincts that underwrite abortion—even while it may largely remove the demand for abortion itself. It’s worth considering that the logic of making and choosing may offer ways largely to eradicate the practice of abortion altogether in the future. Replacing natural childbirth by ectogenesis would ensure that no woman would need to bear an unchosen pregnancy, and genetic screening and interventions would enable children and their traits to be pre-selected—ensuring children would always be wanted and wouldn’t have medical or other conditions that might “require” termination. This would be seen as the most “humane” option. In such a scenario, many pro-life advocates, chiefly concerned with eradicating abortion, may become vocal supporters of ectogenesis.
Third, the cultural notion of the bond between parents and children will be dramatically diluted. If the female (among mammals) is typically the sex that gestates within itself, ectogenesis will provoke a radical shift in the understanding of the human female. One could argue both parents will become “fathers” in a sense, begetting outside of themselves. Yet the bond will be much more weakened than this: Fatherhood is mediated by the man’s relationship to a woman in an act of love (and ideally by the covenant bond of marriage). Ectogenesis, however, is more an impersonal and technical act of production with gametes or genetic material, divorced from the context of a relational bond. We shouldn’t be blind to what this could mean: Government will increasingly intervene between parents and their children, and children’s belonging to their parents will be even further eroded. In Firestone’s vision, for instance, every child is more like a bastard, or a ward of the state, with parenting rights or duties a matter of distributive justice.
Fourth, our culture’s understanding of women will change markedly. Men and women will be forced even more into the mode of interchangeable individuals, and sex will be further neutralized. Women will be alienated from their procreative potential, their bodies viewed like outmoded technology (and this may occur with reference to sex, too, as sexual machines improve). I’ve written about the concept of “de-condensation” in this context before:
Although male identity has historically been especially powerfully located in the realm of work within the world, the value and identity enjoyed by women in society has had much to do with the fact that they bear children and forge the most fundamental human bonds within their very bodies. As Ivan Illich once powerfully put it, women “leave behind a trail of new life.” They do this as “condense” and “integrated” persons—as bearers of sacred meaning—not merely as an aggregation of discrete functions.
However, this is increasingly going to come under threat. When we can engineer artificial human eggs from men’s skin cells, grow the resulting embryos in artificial wombs, and men can have artificial sexual relations that cater to their every fantasy, what becomes of women? Will they represent something more to men than an outmoded sexual and reproductive “technology”? What sort of relation between the sexes will exist in such a world? What sort of bond will exist between generations when reproductive technologies and genetic engineering increasingly intervene? What becomes of parenthood in such a world, especially in relation to the state?
Fifth, the bond between the sexes will be weakened in such a world. Men’s bonds to their mothers and wives—and the honor given to women more generally—are not easily abstracted from the reality of women’s procreative labor.
Sixth, same-sex marriage will increasingly be seen to be the paradigmatic norm of progressive marriage, not just an admitted exception. The ideal “marriage” is a bespoke contractual union between interchangeable partners who engage in mutual genital stimulation, freed from the burdensome responsibility of procreative potential, in deinstitutionalized sexual arrangements open (in principle) to third parties, only having kids through a mutually chosen act of production that can be legally controlled and medically optimized. By comparison, natural forms of marriage are inegalitarian, oppressively prescriptive in their attendant norms, compromising of choice and the desire for mutual pleasure in their natural openness to procreation, and limiting of governmental involvement in the determination of fitting parents.
Seventh, as procreation is abstracted from the natural sexual union between man and woman and from the bodily labor of the woman, we risk becoming increasingly puerile and dependent. The Sexual Revolution accelerated a shift in the ways that we think about sex, from an act fraught with potential consequence—properly engaged in only by those already committed to shoulder the responsibilities it might entail—to a permissive realm of autonomous “adult” pleasure. Responsibilities in this realm must be forbidden access through prophylactic and contraceptive measures and dogmatic libertinism. Procreative marital relations in a sexually exclusive lifelong union is deeply abnormal relative to our social norms of sexual relations: It isn’t “safe sex,” but nor is it clear that such a couple fits the euphemistic category of the “sexually active.” The men and women such a society produce are typically immature, even though they may possess the bossiness of the child who fancies himself as “grown up.”
The current college campus is perhaps the place where this sexual ideology is most fully in effect. Campus authorities celebrate the hedonism of a hook-up culture and the liberation of sexual expression from traditional norms, ensuring its “safety” by freely dispensing condoms and “sex-positive” advice. Simultaneously, of course, they enforce an increasingly censorious and moralistic set of sexual values surrounding consent, non-judgmentalism, and the affirmation of sexuality. Although students are at their peak level of fertility, their “responsibility” lies in the ability to keep their hedonic sexual culture closed to the advent of children.
Death of Fertility
Within such a society, we will no longer rise to the full stature of men and women, but merely be grown men-children and women-children. The gravity of the world gives weight to human action. The more that we free ourselves from its gravity through technology, however, the less weighty our lives and relationships will become. As Oliver O’Donovan observes:
The man-woman relationship . . . is protected from debasement and loss of mutuality by the fact that it is fruitful for procreation. When erotic relationships between the sexes are conceived merely as relationships—with no further implications, no “end” within the purposes of nature—then they lack the significance which they need if they are to be undertaken responsibly. They become simply a profound form of play, undertaken for the joy of the thing alone, and depending upon the mutual satisfaction which each partner affords the other for their continuing justification. The honoring of each partner by the other must be founded on the honor which the relationship itself claims, by serving a fundamental good of the human race.
Fertility is like gravity. Much as we might desire to float free of this gravity and the heaviness of life under its influence, this gravity is the force that enables us to develop and maintain the muscles of virtue and the grounding weight of human meaning.
It is no accident that visions of ectogenesis often also involve radical reconsiderations of adulthood, blurring the boundaries between adults and children for both parties (as Firestone’s vision does). Nor is it an accident that such visions typically involve the radical expansion of the state. As men and women retreat from the responsibilities entailed by natural sexual relations and family, those responsibilities must be assumed by the state as the great Parent. Sexual libertinism, with its celebration of deliverance from conception and childbirth, creates an ever more dependent, biddable, and controllable population.
The ectogenetic future I have outlined above is far from being an inevitability. At most it is a troubling possibility—one that reveals the danger of prevailing ideological tendencies in contemporary society as technological limitations fall away. Without committing ourselves to specific prognostications, which has not been my intent here, reflecting on such hypothetical futures affords us ways in which to interrogate these contemporary ideological tendencies and to better appreciate their dangers. Even as we welcome artificial womb technology that can save the lives of premature infants, we must develop a firmer grasp of the deep value of natural childbearing for humanity, so that we are prepared to defend the shores of human nature from further erosion by the rising tide of a progressive transhumanism.