By Giulia Cavaliere
I’m at that age. The age where close friends start talking about having babies, are having babies or are thinking about number two. Courtesy of these conversations, and YouTube ads being extremely concerned about my fertility, I too have begun pondering baby-related questions. As a certified nerd, the ‘pondering’ led me to the normative literature on full ectogenesis. This futuristic technology would enable the gestation of human foetuses in artificial wombs from in-vitro conception to term. Think of a 9-month functioning incubator.
I got very excited about this ectogenesis business. I’m not particularly looking forward to seeing my rather petit body expanding sufficiently to first house a human foetus and then expel it in sorrow. I’m not really keen on not being able to do sports for a year or so. I love (parts of) my job so much that being off the game for a while is not exactly my number one dream. And this is just about (however small) lifestyle adjustments. Much more serious stuff can happen.
I know from both anecdotal and documented evidence that people that were once as politely sceptical about pregnancy and childbirth as me have changed their minds. They did enjoy these experiences and now regard it as something quasi-magical. I don’t doubt that I too could end up loving my belly bump (I’d quite like that actually). But, at the moment, I regard pregnancy and childbirth as a masterclass on Fichte or a yoga session: I’ve heard that there are people who enjoy them, but it’s not really my cup of tea.
Hence, I could bet that my confirmation bias would have had a field day with the normative stuff on ectogenesis. Liberal defences of ectogenesis contend that this technology would:
- Promote equality between men and women
- Promote women’s freedom
Ectogenesis would redress natural inequalities directly caused by women’s role in begetting children. It would enable them to become mothers in the same way that men do, by reaping the benefits of having children while not experiencing the burdens associated with gestation and childbirth. This technology would also redress inequalities that are indirectly caused by women’s role in biological reproduction, which condemns them to bear the biggest share of responsibilities associated with domestic labour and childrearing. It would promote equality in the labour market, where women are often less competitive; have access to fewer career advancements; and receive lower remuneration than their male counterparts. Lastly, it is argued that ectogenesis would promote women’s freedom. Women would be free to fulfil whatever parenthood project they have in the way they see fit. They would also be free from all the burdens, restrictions and potential harms of pregnancy and childbirth. In short: according to these defences ectogenesis is about both more equality and more freedom. As far as political values go, it’s like having my birthday and Christmas on the same day.
These defences were quite likely to resonate with me. Freedom from biological constraints that hinder my capacity to enjoy my independent professional and personal life? More equality with my successful, rich, educated etc. male counterparts? It all sounded very good. But notwithstanding the initial excitement and the force of my confirmation bias, in my JME paper I criticise these defences of ectogenesis on two counts. Equality-promoting and freedom-promoting arguments are framed in terms of enhanced equality and freedom for (all) women. Despite this, I contend that ectogenesis will likely benefit only a small subset of women and, arguably, not the group most in need of achieving equality and freedom. In addition, these defences do not pay sufficient attention to the context in which ectogenesis would be developed and to current societal, cultural and labouring arrangements. As a result, ectogenesis risks leaving the status quo unchanged.
Do I, and women like me, really need to be made more free and equal? Sure thing, even Western societies are still quite unequal and things are not great for women both in the workplace and at the home. Nonetheless, there is an important mismatch between capacities and needs. I do belong to the group that, for cultural and financial reasons, is most likely to be able to afford and to use reproductive technologies such as ectogenesis. But I certainly don’t belong to the group of people that suffers the most from the negative externalities of pregnancies and childbirth, nor are my preferences on how to live my personal and professional life universally shared. The control exercised during pregnancy on wealthy, young, healthy academics is nothing compared to what poorer women, immigrants, members of ethnic minorities, and other disadvantaged groups experience. In addition, there are staggering disparities in maternal mortality rates between well-off, white and able women and other women, which can be witnessed both within and between countries.
My other contention is that to level the playing field in the workplace and at the home, something more than ectogenesis seems to be necessary. Granted, women’s biology plays a role in the unequal distribution of childrearing responsibilities, but their role has been socialised and has become predominant in many societies. Values and norms can change, but simply introducing a new technology does not determine how and whether such a technology will go about shaping current arrangements, social values and norms. Something similar can be said about achieving equality in the workplace. Ex hypothesis, the benefit of competing equally in the labour market as it is currently organised may not be beneficial. The risk is that from the ‘tyranny of pregnancy’ and childbirth, women would be delivered into the tyrannical hands of a flexible, unfair and potentially exploitative labour market. Roughly, the root of inequalities in the labour market seems to be more about an unfair and exploitative labour market rather than women’s biology.
As it’s currently defended, ectogenesis is a red herring. It distracts from the most urgent and pressing needs of certain women and it locates the problem in women’s biological capacities rather than in current societal structures and arrangements. Contra these views, I argue that the value of ectogenesis, and of defences thereof, lies in the political perspective that it can advance. To do so, I build on certain readings of the international feminist campaign ‘Wages for Housework’. This campaign called for the recognition of reproductive labour (such as housework, sex, childcare) that women were performing in their homes as work. It wasn’t a demand for money, but rather for the recognition of this work as necessary for the production of surplus value and for its demystification as a natural female duty or ‘labour of love’. The campaign advanced a political perspective, one that called for making visible the position of women within society and the labour market, and for subjecting to critical scrutiny current labouring and societal arrangements. It also advanced a provocation, one that was meant to elicit “subversive commitments, collective formations and political hopes”, as Kathi Weeks puts it.
What I propose in my JME paper is that defences of ectogenesis need to similarly advance a broad political perspective and be reconceived in political terms. This perspective allows for engaging with the risks and burdens of pregnancy and childbirth, and the unequal distribution thereof. It also allows for criticising and reflecting on strategies to reform the distribution of childrearing responsibilities in the home and the constraints that women face in the workplace. Ectogenesis should also be defended as a provocation, one that demands safer and more equal services for gestating women; decreases in complications associated with childbirth; better working and living conditions for women and mothers. Only by locating the problem away from women’s biology and in the structure and norms that prevent their flourishing, could women finally achieve equality and freedom.
Paper title: Gestation, Equality and Freedom: Ectogensis as a Political Perspective [OPEN ACCESS]
Author(s): Dr Giulia Cavaliere, Lecturer in Professional Practice, Values and Ethics
Affiliations: Lancaster Medical School, Lancaster University
Competing interests: I have no completing interests to declare
Social media accounts of post author(s): @giuli_cavaliere