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Things To Be Bought And Sold
What happens when you can create a baby, without creating a mother?
The following is a slightly expanded version of my opening remarks for a panel on artificial gestation, titled “A Radical Step To Gender Equality?”, at last weekend’s How The Light Gets In festival in London.
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The title of this panel includes the phrase “gender inequality”. But at the last count, so-called “gender inequality” always cashes out as sex asymmetry. Men’s and women’s bodies and reproductive roles are different. In even the most egalitarian heterosexual couple, the material female contribution to having children is much more arduous than the male one.
If we see this as an unfair burden on women, maybe artificial wombs look like a good idea. But seeing gestation and infant care from the perspective of adult wants, rather than infant needs, is to miss its radically relational nature.
As Winnicott once put it: “There is no such thing as a baby; only a baby and someone.” A baby can’t survive on its own. In the normal course of gestation, the “someone” who ensures its survival is created through pregnancy.
Because pregnancy doesn’t just create a baby. It creates a mother.
Pregnancy transforms the maternal brain. Unless something has gone very wrong, it primes the mother for responsiveness and devotion to her baby.
This attunement also develops in dads and adoptive parents. But this happens more slowly, and largely after the baby is born.
Artificial gestation would eliminate this maternal priming for attachment. Maybe female caregivers would feel less in thrall to their babies, and therefore more free. But what effect would this have from the baby’s perspective?
It would mean even wanted and loved babies starting life with parents who are not primed for caregiving, but who need to develop that bond.
In effect, then, artificial gestation would standardise an attachment gap even for a wanted baby, that’s currently experienced only by motherless babies, orphans, and adoptees, or babies born to mothers experiencing perinatal mental health problems.
We can only guess at the developmental consequences this would have at scale.
Doing this in the name of adult convenience radically inverts the duty of care we owe to infants. We should be willing to adjust to meet their needs, not asking them to compromise to meet our desires.
This attachment gap would be unavoidable even for wanted babies. What happens, though, when you can manufacture babies to order, with no loving parents waiting for them? Orphans and looked-after children are notoriously vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse, and worse. Do we really want to be manufacturing dependent infants with no ‘someone’ primed by evolution and biology to protect their interests?
There are already cases of paedophiles procuring infants for abuse via surrogacy. How much easier and more profitable would such practices be when you don’t even need to involve a human woman?
Motherless babies are archetypal objects of sympathy. Because everyone knows the primal maternal devotion that normally develops in pregnancy really matters.
Every artificially gestated baby would be motherless in this sense. And the manufacture of motherless babies would open the door to a world where we treat human babies as things. To be bought and sold. Arguably this is already happening via commercial surrogacy; do we really want to accelerate it by industrialising the process, and further reducing the human element?
Artificial wombs are speculative at the moment. They may not be so forever. We can be sure those who promote them will tout their ‘liberatory’ prospects, ignoring the reality that ‘liberating’ mothers from the embodied relationship that is gestation means ‘liberating’ infants from a relationship they rely on to survive. We would be instead have a world in which the default for infants is not to be born already in relationship with a someone, but to be born as products for whom a ‘someone’ will be waiting only if they’re lucky.
Instead of this dystopian prospect we should rethink its core underlying premise: that sex asymmetry is oppression, and motherhood is a burden. It’s not: it’s a magnificent superpower.
We shouldn’t be aiming to abolish that superpower, or render it obsolete via technology. We should be aiming to re-centre it in our culture.
Reflection: does an exowomb have to be transhumanist?
One theme that emerged in the course of an hour’s lively debate at HTLGI on this topic was the question of how exowombs map onto a broader heuristic I’ve applied elsewhere in discussing transhuman technologies: contrasting the restorative medical paradigm with a meliorist one.
That is: asking whether a medical technology is used to fix or restore a normal function that isn’t working properly, or if it seeks to break or improve on something that’s working fine. The inaugural break from the restorative paradigm, to my knowledge, is the Pill, which sets out to break healthy fertility in the interests of personal freedom. There have been many more since, notably in the field of reproductive medicine.
Most discussions of hypothetical exowombs assume such a technology would be used in a meliorist way, for example to ‘free’ women from the ‘burden’ of gestation. But there is, in theory, a limited use to which such a thing could be put in order to support the normal development of a very premature baby. I find it much harder to see a clear ethical case against a restorative use of exowombs.
Would such a technology be subject to the same absolutist critique of transhumanism?Are the broader implications of developing such a technology too grave to warrant even pursuing such a limited aim? I don’t know. What do you think?