‘Would YOU grow your child in an artificial womb OUTSIDE of a human body?’ and other headlines…

Share this post

On 14 August 2014 the Daily Mail ran an article with the headline ‘Would YOU grow your child in an artificial womb OUTSIDE of a human body?’ in response to claims by futurist Zoltan Istvan that an artificial uterus would be available by 2034.

Given that I was up to my elbows in rewriting a thriller about the possible consequences of this technology, I was delighted the issue was back in the news.

Feminists are divided about the implications of ‘ectogenesis’, with some commentators claiming it will liberate women from biology, (almost as if the complex obligations and demands placed on women end when you get the baby home from hospital) with others suggesting women would be disempowered by this further shift of reproduction into the realm of medicine and technology.

Andrea Dworkin argued that should an artificial uterus become a reality, men might be tempted to do away with women altogether, (as if men are some hideous homogenous group of Neanderthals, whose only reason for keeping women around in order to gestate their offspring), while Men’s Rights Activitists hoped that wrestling child-growing away from those pesky women and their pesky bodies fathers would get the respect they deserve.

There were also some great commentators taking a more nuanced view, for example I really enjoyed Samantha Allan’s article in the Daily Beast and Soraya Chemaly’s article, What do artificial wombs mean for women?

In Baby X I don’t use the term ‘ectogenesis’, because it was much more obscure when I started writing the book ten years ago.  Instead, I called the technology IVG, an acronym for in vitro gestation, drawing parallels with existing IVF treatments.

And by the time ectogenesis started appearing all over the internet, it already felt much too Science Fiction to me. I figured if anyone was offering this technology to childless couples, they’d want to make it sound like something you’d get on the NHS, rather than something out of The Matrix.

While writing this post, I asked my kids how they’d feel if they found out they hadn’t been grown ‘in mummy’s tummy’ but instead in a unit in a hospital.

If it was all safe, I said. And there were nice doctors there the whole time, looking after them. And daddy and I would both be there to give them a cuddle, as soon as they were ready to be born.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither of them liked the idea.

Is this what journalists call the ‘yuk factor’, a gut repulsion against something new and different? People didn’t much like the idea of organ transplants when the possibility was first raised either.

The thing is, the world isn’t actually perfect, and as one character says in Baby X, nature isn’t perfect either. In an ideal world everyone might prefer to be able to conceive naturally, without medical interventions, and then go on to have the ideal birth, and the ideal child-rearing experience. But in real life, people don’t always get to conceive naturally. What about same sex couples? What about women who are unable to carry a baby to term?

When you’ve been able to produce the babies you want (relatively) simply, it’s all too easy to judge others who aren’t so fortunate.

Like, maybe you’d prefer to have a minimally medicalized birth, but I’ll bet you’d be glad of the availability of an emergency C-section if you really needed one.

But while IVG might start off as a medical treatment – for infertile couples, or premature babies – would its use stop there?  What if it opened the door to unexpected forms of coercion and exploitation?  Who would control this technology?  Who would profit from it?

For me, what’s interesting about ‘What if’ is allowing the other questions to bubble up, once the visceral reaction has died down. Questions which give us an opportunity to examine our assumptions and beliefs.

I mean, what is motherhood, really? It’s obviously a mixture of biological, social, cultural, psychological and legal elements, but how much of each goes into the mix? And how is it different from fatherhood, if at all?

I don’t claim to have definitive answers, and Baby X doesn’t offer them.   But I am interested in asking the questions.

6 thoughts on “‘Would YOU grow your child in an artificial womb OUTSIDE of a human body?’ and other headlines…

  1. Nick H

    once the horror of the negative implications of this dies down, there are some interesting benefits of this technology. Cellular development is essentially limited by the mother, by her hormones but also by her own behavioural patterns such as eating and sleeping. Having a constant stream of artificial food and hormones would speed up the growth process, a bit like growing plants hydroponically rather than with good old sun and water in soil. Secondly, the trigger of birth is also down to the mother, so this could be controlled to allow children to develop longer in the artificial womb until they were say the equivalent of a toddler. So a toddler in half the time, and then able to go straight into school. It sounds like hell to me, and actually not far away from creating clone storm troopers in Star Wars. however being able to sell the ability to produce school ready toddlers would be seized upon by some men. Also, if we ever need to colonise another planet in an enclosed artificial space, you may as well do this.. You would already have changed our nature anyway..

  2. Sonia

    I think what we have discovered about the importance of social interaction for brain development would mean that, even if gestated with iVG, babies would be still part of our lives and be birthed not long after the biological time.
    Lots of interesting questions arise from this and the full implications can’t be known until it’s done.
    I know I would rather have a premature baby in an IVG unit than current intensive care as they would have a better chance of being healthy and not having complications.
    As someone who was literally disabled by pregnancy, I still would t chose IVG over having my child in my womb. The connection and relationship was amazing. That said, we form connections and relationships with babies in the womb in part by our imaginations, and I think people would do that with IVG too.
    Great to hear your thoughts on this Becky.
    And I am soooo excited to read Baby X when it is published in January

  3. Belle Amatt

    Ohhhh fascinating blog post Becky, I am so excited to read Baby X. It is a wonderfully intricate topic. My initial reaction was all a bit period drama…harking back to my own experience of child bearing; nostalgia for those basal, simple and primitive feelings that carrying a child initiates. However, with a more Sci Fi head on and some reflection the concept of watching a child develop outside of the womb is fascinating. And of course the benefits to many undeniable. I am curious as to how this would change the traditional mother/father roles during the IVG period. Would the mother still feel a closer bond to the child, visiting more, paying more attention? I feel our inherent female maternal instinct would persist despite the less physical part played.

  4. Becky Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Belle, those are all things that really interest me too. I also loved what Sonia said above, that we form connections with our unborn children in our imaginations, as well as physically, and this would be true for IVG/ectogenesis too.

  5. raphael am

    Indeed the artificial womb would be great for fathers. You may speak with deride because, as a woman, you are not subjected to be considered disposable after a divorce and seeing them every-other-weekend, or even less because the mighty mother wants to show who is the boss, is something you are not really in danger.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *