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.