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The (Un)Ethical Womb: The Promises and Perils of Artificial Gestation

  • Symposium: Emerging Technologies
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The purpose of this article is to reflect on the changes that the implementation of artificial wombs would bring to society, the family, and the concept of motherhood and fatherhood through the lens of two recent books: Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season and Rebecca Ann Smith’s Baby X. Each of the two novels, set in a near future, follows the work of a scientist who develops artificial womb technology. Significantly, both women experience concerns about the technology and its long-term effects that make both of them leave their laboratories and rethink the technology they invented, while considering its many ethical implications. Both novels can be seen as feminist revisionary rewritings of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, rejecting the vision of rows of mass-produced, anonymous babies in artificial wombs, stressing instead the closeness of the parents to their offspring. They nevertheless critically evaluate not only the many potential benefits for women of ectogenetic technology but also the possible disadvantages and pitfalls.

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  1. Taking into account these developments, Claire Horn (2020b) considers they “present a number of areas of urgent inquiry: What specific issues related to cost, distribution of healthcare, and systemic inequality need to be considered in each of these locales?” (10).

  2. In this alternative time frame Freida, the inventor of the first artificial womb/baby pouch was also a colleague of Rosalind Franklin, at King’s. She notes how her colleagues would “take credit for her work” (127) and how she felt constantly observed and judged in that work environment of mostly male scientists.

  3. As Firestone (1970, 10) had already warned, about the need to change the system: “Though the sex class system may have originated in fundamental biological conditions, this does not guarantee once the biological basis of their oppression has been swept away that women and children will be freed. On the contrary, the new technology, especially fertility control, may be used against them to reinforce the entrenched system of exploitation.”

  4. As Horn (2020a, ¶2) rightly observes, the artificial womb is “likely to be expensive and limited to use in highly equipped neonatal intensive care units. Global disparities in health outcomes for pregnant people and neonates, as well as racialized disparities in these outcomes within the wealthiest nations stand only to be increased by the introduction of this technology” with access “too frequently an afterthought.”

  5. Jessica H. Schultz (2010) provides a discussion of the thorniest legal and ethical issues that might result from the implementation of artificial wombs and suggests that the “greatest area of controversy is likely to be the issue of defining embryos and fetuses in artificial wombs as viable from the time of implantation,” an issue she considers that “for both wrongful death and abortion statues, is both a necessary and a workable definition” (901). She also proposes that “courts not enforce contracts between potential parents that permit one or both parties to terminate an embryo or fetus in an artificial womb” (903). Elizabeth Chloe Romanis (2018) also reflects on the ethico-legal issues concerning the viability of a fetus in an artificial womb versus traditional gestation.

  6. McLeod and Ponesse (2008) remark that the infertile woman “often blames herself or is blamed by others for what is happening to her, even when she cannot control or prevent what is happening to her” (126), due to the social pressure placed on women to become mothers in a pro-natalist society. As they further argue, in words that can apply to Karen in Baby X, “according to pro-natalist norms, childbearing is a woman’s social role and if a woman does not bear children, then she does not “count” (i.e., have value) in society, or she counts less than other women” (135).


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Correspondence to Aline Ferreira.

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Ferreira, A. The (Un)Ethical Womb: The Promises and Perils of Artificial Gestation. Bioethical Inquiry 19, 381–394 (2022).

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