By Elizabeth Chloe Romanis.
Sci-fi stories about the artificial womb abound – from Brave New World to the Growing Season, and now that scientists are seemingly making progress towards technology that might be partially capable of facilitating the process of gestation ex utero, there has emerged exciting academic debate about the potential implications. There is much interest in how the ‘artificial womb’ could liberate female people by allowing them to reproduce without necessarily carrying a pregnancy in their own bodies. This claim starts from the assumption that liberation means ‘women being about to reproduce like men.’
Giulia Cavaliere considers these claims that technology facilitating full ectogenesis (the complete gestation of a foetus from conception to term ex utero) promotes women’s equality and freedom and finds them wanting. These claims are seemingly entirely divorced from contemporary context. It is hard to imagine how ectogenesis can ‘solve’ gender inequality if artificial wombs materialise in the very societal and cultural context that continues to embed inequality. Her arguments really resonated with me, and similar considerations have influenced my approach to ectogenesis. There are two further points I sought to raise in my commentary on Giulia’s (excellent) paper.
Why are we so obsessed with full ectogenesis? Since news of successful animal testing of ‘artificial womb models’ in 2017 there has been a resurgence in literature considering what would happen if we could grow babies from scratch – without anyone needing to be pregnant. It’s almost like we are seeking the elimination of ‘natural pregnancy’ and often results in the erasure of pregnant people / women and their interests in discussion. But the scientific realities are that there has only been some potential proof of principle for artificial wombs as an alternative to later-term gestation (instead of neonatal intensive care) not an alternative to all pregnancy (which would be far more complicated). There are also, at present, legal restrictions on embryo research that restrict the development of complete ectogenesis. Also, it seems likely that no matter how good artificial wombs become there will always be pregnancy (as long as people continue to enjoy unprotected sex). The use of artificial wombs to facilitate partial ectogenesis is therefore far more likely. So why does it go relatively ignored?
Partial ectogenesis could still offer lots of benefits to pregnant people by allowing them more control over the conditions and duration of their pregnancy. What if pregnant people could opt for a machine to take over gestation later in pregnancy? This would be a blessing for people experiencing pregnancies that are, or are perceived as, dangerous or high-risk. This point, however, still assumes the availability of such a choice both socially and legally. Yet, access to choices about pregnancy is still subject to excessive social, legal and medical control. Women are still routinely judged for formula-feeding rather than breast-feeding; or for having a surgical childbirth rather than a vaginal delivery. What of the woman who opts for an artificial womb? Or the woman who doesn’t? The legal framework is also far more restrictive about gestation than it might first appear, since there are plausible reasons to believe it would not necessarily be lawful in England and Wales to opt for a technological alternative to gestation in the absence of a medical justification.
Partial ectogenesis makes for a better standpoint from which to demand better and equal services for gestating women and mothers because it does not allow us to imagine away the existence of a gestating person. Considering the legal and social conditions surrounding partial ectogenesis also enables us to consider quite how restrictive the law concerning female reproductive health and gestation is. We should, of course, consider the implications of technology that might revolutionise neonatal intensive care and potentially offer people experiencing dangerous pregnancies an alternative. But more importantly, considering these technologies helps expose how restrictive criminal law surrounding gestation actually is in England and Wales, which in turn adds to contemporary calls for decriminalisation of pregnancy termination (which would result in better conditions for gestating people in the present).
Author: Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, PhD Candidate in Bioethics and Medical Jurisprudence University of Manchester
Competing interests: None declared