Skip to main content

Advertisement

Log in

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

  • Symposium: Emerging Technologies
  • Published:
Journal of Bioethical Inquiry Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  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).

References

  • Aliaga-Lavrijsen, J. 2021. Ectogenesis and representations of future motherings in Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season. Atlantis 43(1): 55–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aristarkhova, I. 2012. Hospitality of the matrix: Philosophy, biomedicine, and culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Atwood, M. 2011. The road to Ustopia. The Guardian, October 14.

  • Bard, J.S. 2006. Immaculate gestation? How will ectogenesis change current paradigms of social relationships and values? In Ectogenesis: Artificial womb technology and the future of human reproduction, edited by S. Gelfand and J.R. Shook, 149–157. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bennett, R. 2008. Is reproduction women’s business? How should we regulate regarding stored embryos, posthumous pregnancy, ectogenesis and male pregnancy? Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology 2(3): 3

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Braidotti, R. 2011. Nomadic subjects: Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cannold, L. 1995. Women, ectogenesis, and ethical theory. Journal of Applied Philosophy 12(1): 55–64.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Cavaliere, G. 2020. Gestation, equality and freedom: Ectogenesis as a political perspective. Journal of Medical Ethics 46(2): 76-82.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chambers, T. 2015. The fiction of bioethics. New York and London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Chan, S. 2009. More than cautionary tales: The role of fiction in bioethics. Journal of Medical Ethics 35(7): 398–399.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Charnock, A. 2017. Dreams before the start of time. Seattle: 47North.

  • Cohen, I.G. 2017. Artificial wombs and abortion rights. The Hastings Centre Report 47(4): inside back cover.

  • Coleman, S. 2004. The ethics of artificial uteruses: Implications for reproduction and abortion. Aldershot, Hants and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cornell, D. 2016 [1995]. The imaginary domain: Abortion, pornography and sexual harassment. New York and London: Routledge.

  • Firestone, S. 1970. The dialectic of sex: The case for feminist revolution. London and Brooklyn: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gordijn, B., and H. ten Have. 2018. Science fiction and bioethics. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 21(3): 277–278.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Greely, T. 2016. The end of sex and the future of human reproduction. Cambridge, MA: University of Harvard Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Haldane, J.B.S. 1924. Daedalus, or science and the future. London: Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hansen, S. 2018. Family resemblances: Human reproductive cloning as an example for reconsidering the mutual relationships between bioethics and science fiction. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 15(2): 231–242.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Healthcare in Europe. 2019. One step closer to the artificial womb. October 8. https://healthcare-in-europe.com/en/news/one-step-closer-to-the-artificial-womb.html. Accessed September 3, 2021.

  • Horn, C. 2020a. Ectogenesis at home? Artificial wombs and access to care. Blog: Medical Humanities, March 3. https://blogs.bmj.com/medical-humanities/2020/03/03/ectogenesis-at-home-artificial-wombs-and-access-to-care/. Accessed September 5, 2021.

  • ————. 2020b. Ectogenesis is for feminists: Reclaiming artificial wombs from anti-abortion discourse. Catalyst 6(1): 1–15.

  • Huxley, A. 1998. Brave new world. New York: Perennial Classics.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keen, S. 2015. Intersectional narratology in the study of narrative empathys. In Narrative theory unbound: Queer and feminist interventions, edited by R. Warhol and S.S. Lanser, 123–146. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kendal, E. 2015. Equal opportunity and the case for sponsored ectogenesis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • ————. 2017. The perfect womb: Promoting equality of (fetal) opportunity. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 14(2): 185–194.

  • ————. 2020. Pregnant people, inseminators and tissues of human origin: How ectogenesis challenges the concept of abortion. Monash Bioethical Review 38(2): 197–204.

  • Langford, S. 2008 An end to abortion? A feminist critique of the “ectogenetic solution” to abortion. Women’s Studies International Forum 31(4): 263–269.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lanser, S.S. 2015. Toward (a queerer and) more (feminist) narratology. In Narrative theory unbound: Queer and feminist interventions, edited by R. Warhol, and S.S. Lanser, 23–42. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • MacKay, K. 2020. The “tyranny of reproduction”: Could ectogenesis further women’s liberation? Bioethics 34(4): 346–353.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mathison, E., and J. Davis. 2017. Is there a right to the death of the foetus? Bioethics 31(4): 313–320.

  • McLeod, C., and J. Ponesse. 2008. Infertility and moral luck: The politics of women blaming themselves for infertility. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 1(1): 126–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Melo-Martin, I. de. 2016. Rethinking reprogenetics: Enhancing ethical analyses of reprogenetic technologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • O’Byrne, A. 2010. Natality and finitude. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Oliver, K. 2010. Enhancing evolution: Whose body, whose choice? The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48 (September): 74–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Overall, C. 2015. Rethinking abortion, ectogenesis, and fetal death. Journal of Social Philosophy 46(1): 126–140.

  • Partridge, E., M. Davey, M. Hornick, et al. 2017. An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb. Nature Communications 8: 15112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Räsänen, J. 2017. Ectogenesis abortion and a right to the death of the fetus. Bioethics 31(9): 697–702.

  • Romanis, E.C. 2018. Artificial womb technology and the frontiers of human reproduction: Conceptual differences and potential implications. Journal of Medical Ethics 44(11): 751–755.

  • ————. 2020a. Is “viability” viable? Abortion, conceptual confusion and the law in England and Wales and the United States. Journal of Law and the Biosciences 7(1): 1-29.

  • ————. 2020b. Partial ectogenesis in context. Blog: Journal of Medical Ethics, February 6.

  • ————. 2021. Abortion & “artificial wombs”: Would “artificial womb” technology legally empower non-gestating genetic progenitors to participate in decisions about how to terminate pregnancy in England and Wales? Journal of Law and the Biosciences 8(1): 1-36.

  • Romanis, E.C., and C. Horn. 2020. Artificial wombs and the ectogenesis conversation: A misplaced focus? Technology, abortion, and reproductive freedom. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 13(2): 174–194.

  • Romanis, E.C., D. Begović, M. Brazier, and A. Mullock. 2020. Reviewing the womb. Journal of Medical Ethics 47(12): 820-829.

  • Schick, A. 2016. Whereto speculative bioethics? Technological visions and future simulations in a science fictional culture. Journal of Medical Humanities 42(4): 225–231.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ————. 2017. Bioethics and the legitimation/regulation of the imagined future. In Imagined futures in science, technology and society, edited by G. Verschraegen, F. Vandermoere, L. Braeckmans, and B. Segaert, 15–44. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Schultz, J.H. 2010. Development of ectogenesis: How will artificial wombs affect the legal status of a fetus or embryo? Chicago-Kent Law Review 84(3): 877–906.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sedgwick, H. 2017. The growing season. London: Harvill Secker.

  • Smajdor, A. 2007. The moral imperative for ectogenesis. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 16(3): 336–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, R.A. 2016. Baby X. Nottingham: Mother’s Milk Books.

  • Squier, S.M. 1994. Babies in bottles: Twentieth-century visions of reproductive technologies. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ————. 2004. Liminal lives: Imagining the human at the frontiers of biomedicine. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

  • Uhlmann, G. 2021. No further EU funds for the development of the so-called artificial uterus [petition]. https://www.openpetition.eu/petition/online/no-further-eu-funds-for-the-development-of-the-so-called-artificial-uterus. Accessed September 3, 2021.

  • Usuda, H., S. Watanabe, Y. Miura, et al. 2017. Successful maintenance of key physiological parameters in preterm lambs treated with ex vivo uterine environment therapy for a period of 1 week. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 217(4): 457.e1–457.e13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aline Ferreira.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ferreira, A. The (Un)Ethical Womb: The Promises and Perils of Artificial Gestation. Bioethical Inquiry 19, 381–394 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-022-10184-w

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-022-10184-w

Keywords

Navigation