One of the big science stories in the last month has been the invention of an artificial womb. The device has successfully assisted a number of lamb foetuses to term, and scientists are hopeful it will also assist premature human babies.
What a wonderful development, to alleviate the health complications for those tiny babies and reduce the heartache for their parents.
But the potential of the invention does not stop there. As one scientist said, 'It's appealing to imagine a world where artificial wombs grow babies, eliminating the health risk of pregnancy.' Will this invention be used for women unable to carry a baby to term? Can it be used by women who choose not to carry their own baby? Will pregnant women be forced to give up their baby to the device? Will it replace women altogether?
Technology is value free. The artificial womb is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It is simply a tool. Like all tools however, humans could choose to put it to use in ways that are good or bad. This technology therefore has many futures. That it can assist premature babies is not hard to see as an important and valuable use. Imagine, however, using the device to grow a baby from scratch: from in vitro conception to gestation in a bag. A boon, you might think, for women unable to carry a child.
The device would serve as a surrogate — without the complexities of human relationships. This might afford women reproductive agency, freeing them from the limitations of their bodies to be able to have a child. As more women might become mothers, so too might society benefit from the value of children who would otherwise not be born.
It is not only women who might avail themselves of this option. Anyone wanting to have a baby might use the device. Unlike other forms of artificial reproduction the artificial womb might separate women from gestation and birth altogether. Theoretically, all that is required is an egg. This raises different ethical questions altogether from that of the previous scenario. It poses questions about the nature of woman as mother, and also about the child birthed independently of any mother. It causes us to rethink not only biological or genetic relationships, but social relationships.
Then there is the matter of reproductive freedom for women who are able to be pregnant, but who do not wish to be so. Shulamith Firestone imagined a future for women freed from the strictures of pregnancy, where babies grew externally to their bodies, and were collectively raised. Thus freed, women could participate fully in society. Aldous Huxley likewise imagined such a world.
Pregnancy and labour are not only potentially life-threatening, but they can also restrict women's health and vitality. Not always of course, as Serena Williams has so marvellously demonstrated.
"Each of these factors can operate to support women's reproductive freedom, or be wielded as a tool of control over women's bodies."
Rather than a means of excluding women from motherhood, the artificial womb could instead be a device of liberation for women whose lives need not miss a beat while their baby grows safely with the aid of science. Such a use need not alienate child from parent, and may express a woman's free will — but it may still challenge values grounded in perceptions of sex and biology perceived to be innate, or natural.
So useful might the device become however, that women may even be required to use it. One consequence of society's identification of women as mothers is that we have erased the identity of women as women. Mothers, and particularly pregnant women, are almost universally judged as 'good' or 'bad' mothers by friends, family, and strangers alike. We are bombarded by media stories of what mothers, and pregnant women, must do in the best interests of their child.
Imagine then what might happen if a woman was deemed unfit to carry her child: if a woman was doing things deemed harmful to her foetus — like taking drugs, or smoking, or drinking alcohol. It is not too far a stretch to suggest that the state — or even the father of the foetus — might step in. That is because the state is already doing so.
Where women in the US, for example, are being jailed for mistreatment of their foetuses, the artificial womb may seem a preferable alternative. The court might order a Caesarean section, remove the foetus, and have it 'properly' cared for in the artificial womb. The mother may or may not be permitted to apply for custody once it is born.
This scenario again separates child from mother — not due to the free exercise of will of either a woman wanting to be a mother, or a man wanting to be a father. Instead, it interposes a denial of a woman's free will at the behest of the state or the child's father. Despite an ostensible value placed on the wellbeing of the child, the mother is disregarded as a person.
It only took a few paragraphs in this article for the miraculous, life-saving device to become a futuristic dystopian tool of oppression. This is relevant to us in Australia because at the moment, women cannot be said to enjoy unrestricted reproductive freedom. Our reproductive choices are shaped by the weight of social expectations, economic opportunities, and access to childcare, contraception, and abortion. Each of these factors can operate to support women's reproductive freedom, or be wielded as a tool of control over women's bodies.
We must come to grips with the complex interplay of factors that shape women's reproductive agency, and consider women's agency as well as the other values and relations at stake. Until we do so, we cannot assume the benign use of the artificial womb, for all its benefits.
Kate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.