The Obsolescent Mother

Is the artificial womb inevitable?
"Did you know that a woman can now have children without a man?"

"But what on earth for?"

"You can apply ice to a woman's ovaries, for instance. She can have a child. Men are no longer necessary to humanity."

At once Ella laughs, and with confidence. "But what woman in her senses would want ice applied to her ovaries instead of a man?"

—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

In a German woodcut from the sixteenth century, a woman is giving birth. She squats on a birthstool, something that looks like a portable three-legged toilet, various models of which turn up in mosaics, drawings, and paintings all the way from Rome until the early 1800s in America. This German woman (or rather girl: the flesh of her placid face is rounder and firmer than the saggy jowls on the midwives who attend her) grasps with her left hand the bottom of the stool while with the right she presses down on the swelling under her clothes. She is fully dressed, like the others in the picture, one midwife (perhaps the assistant) standing behind her, holding her up by the armpits, while the senior hag sits on a very low chair facing the girl's spread legs, her arms thrust up the girl's voluminous skirts, giving the artist a chance to show off his technique with light and shadow on folds, and exposing the girl's feet.

These feet—they are bare, muscular, contorted. They are in contrast with the rest of the picture, which is stylized, with little except formal lines of tension. They are just about the only sign that in real life the scene was not serene, but hectic, noisy, painful, with sweat and juices running, screams, moans, and curses, and in the air a possibility of death. If this girl died in labor, or her child from infection in the first few days of life, it was as unremarkable as the father of her child being slaughtered in the wars of religion.

Other animals don't seem to feel pain or run much risk in giving birth: their bodies take on a casual attitude, the mother doesn't need help. The human mother is an exceptional case that it took the whole progress of evolution to produce. For almost as long as Man has been human, birth has been a big event, disturbance, and more or less a shock, so much so that at least one mythology has accounted for the pain of it as punishment for an original sin against Almighty God. Considering how long Man has been human-defined biologically or mythologically—it is just yesterday that childbirth began to be mitigated. For thousands of years the experience of women was pretty much that of the German girl. It was against the law to dissect, and no one undersi the reproductive organs. Obstetric tools were scarce and clumsy, and midwives relied on the cunning of their (dirty) hands. There was no pain-killer, so women went through the thing wide-awake, unless they were lucky enough to faint. An ordeal, and one which thoughtful men must have been happy to be spared.

Yet the transformation of childbirth from painful and dangerous event to safe and efficient routine was thanks to men, to the energy of males. The beginning of this transformation dates only from a little before the time when drawings and paintings start to show men, instead of women, working around the swollen body of the woman in labor. What part of this male energy, channeled into ingeniousness, derived from a curiosity separate. from feeling, what part from compassion, or guilt? Leonardo's drawings of the fetus may well be just an expression of his need to find nature out and record it; yet without such anatomical study, childbirth could not have changed. Peter Chamberlen, inventor of the forceps in the year Shakespeare published Love's Labour's Lost, kept the details of his simple and great invention secret, haggling for a price with his colleague-rivals while women suffered. In contrast to him, there have probably been any number of doctors of whom we could think that their sympathy for women was at least as active as their desire to get rich or be famous. Maybe it is true that the motives of most of the doctors were mixed, and that only the humble practitioners were pure.

In 1842, James Young Simpson, professor of midwifery at the University of Edinburgh, at the age of thirty became the first to use anesthesia to help women in labor. Before he got any honor for it, he had to contend with the gloomy abuse and doubt of the people who ran the medical and religious Establishments-that is, other men. Ministers, for example, objected to Simpson because:

Pain during operations is, in the majority of cases, even desirable! Its prevention or annihilation is, for the most part, hazardous to the patient. In the lying-in chamber, nothing is more true than this: pain is the mother's safety, its absence her destruction. Yet, there are those bold enough to administer vapor of ether, even at this critical juncture, forgetting it has been ordered, that "in sorrow shall she bring forth."

This combination of bad moralizing and bogus medicine was not considered stupid or cruel; it sounded convincing to most people, even women. Some of the letters Dr. Simpson got from his colleagues were better informed, but even agnostic medical men were apt to believe that (a woman's) pain was somehow necessary, without bothering to prove it. While women couldn't have begun to be liberated from the special pains and dangers of their biology without the help of certain men, there have always been, at each "critical juncture," other men opposing this liberation, or at least the technical means of achieving it.

Simpson's answers to the reactionaries and the skeptics radiate good sense and also concern for the suffering of women. He has to remind a Dr. Meigs of Philadelphia, one of his critics, that the fact is "the contractions of the uterus, and not pain, is the essential to the progress of labor." But aside from the medical facts, he is obliged to go in for some moralizing, too:

Like other physicians you deem it, I doubt not, your duty to wield the powers o your art, in order to free those that submit themselves to your medical care, from these and from other similar sufferings. But if it is right for you to relieve and remove these pains, why is it not right for you also to relieve and remove the pains accompanying the act of parturition? I cannot see on what principle of philosophy, or morality, or humanity, a physician should consider it his duty to alleviate and abolish, when possible, the many minor pains to which his patients are subject, and yet should consider it improper to alleviate and abolish, when possible, pains of so aggravated a character, that, in your own language, they are "absolutely indescribable and comparable to no other pains," "Pains for which there is no other name but Agony."

Even Simpson was not entirely altruistic, however. During the time it took for pain-killers to be accepted by the medical Establishment and acquiesced in by the Church (about twelve years, until Queen Victoria's much-publicized labor under chloroform), he fretted, not only about the women who continued to go through childbirth cold-sober but also about his professional reputation and whether he would get the glory coming to him. Innovators, great benefactors of women like Simpson, have generally had complicated feelings, their sympathy being sharpened by ambition. Only women. once they have realized the meaning for themselves of these innovations, have displayed uncomplicated enthusiasm, which finally proves more effective than anything else in overcoming tradition. The first woman on whom Simpson tried chloroform, in 1848 (until that time he had been making do with ether), was so grateful, and perhaps unconsciously clear about the improved future of her half of the human race, that she had her girl-child christened "Anesthesia."

Other men made further advances: antisepsis in surgery, antibiotics, refinements in diagnosis and delivery. Because of this accumulation of knowledge, to have a child in an industrial country today is no longer dangerous. The process may be bothersome and uncomfortable for many, but very few women die in childbirth anymore. However, despite this, i is still not possible to say that we take birth as casually as animals do. A tinge of mystery remains; the thing still seems formidable, perhaps least to obstetricians, more to women, and most to men.

As long as men have had the artifice to represent, they have made the image of the beatific Madonna and Child, an image that speaks to some profound need, love, guilt, fear, or reverence, or all of these together subsumed under awe. Today, medical knowledge has grown, and conception and childbearing are apparently less mysterious than they once were. It is understood that the egg when it bursts from its follicle in the ovary is about as big as the period at the end of this sentence; that if it happens to be fertilized during its journey down the fallopian tube (in Latin, oviduct), the genetic material from it and the sperm combine and rearrange, and the new organism (an embryo) divides, and divides again, and again, until it arrives in the uterus looking something like a segmented soccer ball, and implants itself into the mucus lining of the uterus, where about two weeks after fertilization there begins to arise between the embryo and its mother one of the most complicated structures in nature: the placenta. This is an entire environment, a universe for the embryo alone, separating it from and connecting it to its mother by membranes so fine that blood cells pass through undamaged, bringing the embryo nourishment and carrying away poisons. For the next eight months, so long as she eats, breathes, and excretes for herself, the mother eats, breathes, and excretes for the embryo, then fetus, which develops from a plasm with creases, to a mollusk, to a fish, to a. pig, and attains the morphology (Greek, morphe, "form") of a human being, with two clear and open jelly eyes which rapidly move in movements associated with dreaming. Then, in a normal pregnancy, about nine months after conception, the gigantically stretched uterus begins to contract and expel, and birth takes place.

All this is known today, yet the process of childbearing, with its final event as if something were coming to inexorable term, still has about it a sense of prehistory, savage and elemental, even though it is surrounded by rubber gloves and stainless steel. It is a spectacle that impresses the civilized no less than the savage mind as awesome, and together with the other striking biological events associated with a woman's body, may lead a man like Sigmund Freud to write, "Anatomy is destiny." However, this epigram, with its numerous social, sexual, economic, and political implications, has had its portion of incontrovertible truth reduced in the years since it was written, and again, this has been thanks to men. The female's circular, periodic, excitable, "destined" biology has been brought closer to the linear biology of the male as a result of new knowledge of the chemistry of sexual differentiation and functioning, and the technology that this knowledge has made possible—above all, the Pill.

But a stubborn remnant of biological fact and cultural myth, that men and women alike are affected by, persists. So long as we reproduce ourselves, we also reproduce the spectacle of a woman withdrawing into herself, becoming huge, and in blood and tumult bringing forth the succeeding generation.

This is the stuff myths are made of, customs (such as the French custom of kissing a lady's hand, which originated not as a compliment to her but a symbolic gesture of gratitude to all women together for what they endure in childbirth) and practice (such as the practice of the mother, rather than the father, caring for children, because for nine months it was impossible to decide whether she and the child constituted two organisms or one).

Even the mother may experience this mystic awesomeness, so strange and somehow at odds with the present and the future. Yet it is only the remnant of a myth, and technology, which has gone part of the way toward destroying it, may yet destroy the rest.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In