Liberation or Folly? Your Takes on Artificial Wombs

Or, “if you squint a little, artificial wombs look like a solution that can satisfy everyone.”

Hands holding pregnant stomach
Getty; The Atlantic

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Earlier this week I asked readers, “What do you think about artificial wombs? Are they ethical? Desirable? Should they be a priority for scientists? If they become advanced enough to be viable, would you ever use one? How would a world in which they were available differ from ours?”

Kaitlin, who favors artificial wombs, has been thinking about this subject for a long time, and sees it as a clash between equality and identity:

I was a 16-year-old girl when my mother thought I was monstrous for announcing that women would never be equal until everyone had access to artificial wombs and the ability to have children with their partners, regardless of gender. To my mother this was the stripping away of her identity and role in the society—motherhood. For me, it was imagining a world where no one has to be defined by their reproductive role unless they choose it, the necessary step for creating an egalitarian society with true gender fluidity. I had just finished reading American speculative fiction writer Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, where artificial wombs and their use (or not) play major plot points, and I was intoxicated with the possibility that I could be more than my reproductive organs.

Mark opposes artificial wombs in general but has mixed feelings:

I imagine the perfection of such a technique is only a matter of time, and the benefit to previously pre-viable children cannot be ignored. At the same time, the question immediately brought to mind this quote from Shulamith Firestone (Dialetic of Sex, 1970):

“The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it … The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”

Our modern society is simply unable to say “no” in principle to reaching for more power, and as C. S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, “all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.” While a more equitable division of labor is a good thing, I think that completely and finally severing the link between the mother and child for the sake of utility is not. It’s hard to imagine a world where commodification of human dignity would not be the endpoint.

Jesse is an enthusiastic proponent of the technology:

Think of all the times a pregnant woman is told: If you try to carry this child to term, you will both die. Now suppose that for some—not all or many, but even just some—of these pregnancies, the mother is then told: You have the option of transferring the child to an artificial womb, which will surely save your life, and has a good chance of bringing the child to term. What a miracle! What a blessing! Who could possibly object?

We can certainly concede that it is not ideal. The mother may suffer detrimental psychological effects from the absence of physical intimacy with her child, and for that matter, perhaps the child will, too. Further, it is virtually certain that the technology will be suboptimal for a long time. We should expect children with low birth weight and developmental abnormalities. There will be diminished opportunity for the mother to transfer her viral antibodies to the child—and who knows what other kinds of things the mother’s womb may do for her child that we don’t yet fully understand? But to argue that any of these things are worse than a dead baby seems a difficult task indeed.

Rosie’s family history predisposes her to celebrating artificial wombs:

My brother was born at 28 weeks. As a result, he has a range of disabilities including an intellectual disability that leaves him unable to live an independent life. My husband and I are starting to plan a family. If I had the safety of knowing that if I went into labor prematurely our child could continue to develop and grow in an artificial womb, I’d be less reticent [about getting] pregnant. I’m so afraid of creating another person who I will need to be responsible for well past young adulthood. I think artificial wombs are a fantastic idea!

Laura also focuses on medical obstacles to getting pregnant:

I have health issues that made it challenging to have my child in 2019 and make it very challenging to have another child. I have friends who have struggled immensely with infertility, multiple miscarriages and/or stillbirths, because unfortunately something in their genes makes it hard for their bodies to carry a fetus to full-term. If they had the opportunity to be able to have an artificial womb carry a child for them, it would be a godsend.

Mike is gay, married, and enthusiastic:

Having a child for a gay couple is frankly fraught with complexity, first and foremost, identifying a surrogate! More complexity comes from what now may become a 3 parent family! Being able to remove the surrogate frees gay men in so many ways. And gives them total control in what is a deeply personal decision in the lives of gay couples.

But Ilona worries that artificial wombs will prove a slippery slope:

Having had miscarriages, I know firsthand the disappointment and learned quickly what a miracle pregnancy is. Those nine months may be uncomfortable and reshape a body in less than perfect ways, but the time allows for a connection to be created that is cemented at birth. I suspect synthetic wombs would allow for mass produced children as every good development often leads to misuse. Do we really want a day when we can order a child to our specifications without the investment of time and preparation?  

What a sad world this could become!

Ann believes that artificial wombs are one more example of what she sees as a broader human folly:

I question the utility of the human propensity to constantly try to one-up Mother Nature. It seems we do a lot of tweaking, to fix something that isn’t broken or improve human lives at the expense of other life. We usually end up with more problems than we started with. Examples abound: the advent of chemical fertilizers, gas powered vehicles, ubiquitous paving, industrial scale farming, sugar laden food—the list is endless and timeless.   

The result seems to be that this entire planet is, in our care, on a trajectory towards complete artificiality. And since wisdom is imparted so very late in a single human life, and rarely accepted as a template for the congregate of human activity even when it is spelled out chapter and verse to each new generation, it appears we will keep marching towards our own dismal, depressive, disassociated relationship with our own nature. Not to mention a far less appealing habitat. I vote “no” on one more addition to Frankenstein’s museum.  

Robert worries about overpopulation:

This is a solution looking for a problem. THE WORLD IS STILL OVERPOPULATED; it can’t support the population it does have. Do we really need more carbon-burners born through artificial means? It’s a triumph for aggressive individualism (or libertarianism if you prefer) over the good of everyone else. “I want mine. If it helps kill you, gee, I’m really sorry but at least I got mine.” Just morally WRONG. We’re all in this together. It’s time to act like it.

And Jean says artificial wombs have implications for femaleness that fill her with dread:

If we remove pregnancy from the female body, it renders so many salient aspects of femaleness moot. I may sound like a biological essentialist, but when you look at the female body, almost everything about it (starting at puberty) is tailored around pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. Think of the hormones (and hormonal fluctuations) that influence the psychological ways females differ from men. Think about menstruation—how many females would choose to continue bleeding every month with the cramps and the mood swings now that they won’t be using their uterus?

I feel conflicted, as a female, because the female body can be a hindrance—the proportionally high body fat, aforementioned mood swings and periods, the toll of pregnancy and childbirth under the best circumstances—yet outsourcing wombs might so significantly alter the character of females, which serves as a balance to males in many ways, and could theoretically sort of erase women as we know them. I also, in truly paranoid fashion, worry about some dystopian situation where women would be forced to “have” children since there’s no longer a physical burden—only the emotional one.

In contrast, Amelia believes the technology would be good for women and their equal standing:

Here’s my take: artificial wombs are the last frontier of women’s liberation. Decoupling the woman from being pregnant and having to give birth really would level the playing field. As long as the tech isn’t being used to breed a ton of extra people or super soldiers or something, this would absolutely improve the lives of women everywhere. There would be no more attempting high-risk pregnancies and allowing the mother to die in childbirth.

It sickens me that women go through the process of pregnancy and birth, and then have to recover from their bodies being ripped and cut open while they’re raising an infant. Imagine being handed a ready-made baby without having to go through the pregnancy and birth. Parents would find themselves better equipped for the task at hand.

Bekke frets about maintaining the connection between mother and child:

Just no! Bonding with a child is important, and how much bonding, physically and emotionally, can a mother do with a totally “artificial” birth?

But Errol is skeptical of that argument:

Is there no such thing as a father who loves his child? And I guess that siblings don’t have reason to care about each other since they were never inside the other’s stomach.

Jonathan argues that “a world where pre-natal children can be safely and reliably transferred out of a natural womb” would transform social attitudes toward abortion:

Abortion kills a human being in its most innocent and most vulnerable state—often through grotesque violence … While a small fraction of these abortions occur because the pre-natal child (by no will of its own) gravely endangers the health and life of its mother, the overwhelming majority of abortions occur because the burden of the child is for myriad reasons unwanted. This is the case for hundreds of thousands of abortions each year in the United States.

Today, it is common to justify this violence on the basis of bodily autonomy … the claim that the mother has the right to deny the pre-natal child the use of her body at any time … If, however, a prenatal child could be safely and reliably removed to an artificial womb, this violence would no longer be the necessary result of vindicating bodily autonomy. Rather, a woman would be able to transfer the pre-natal child without any of the attendant violence. Voluntarily choosing that violence would quickly become a horrifying notion, and society would rapidly embrace the artificial womb as the means of escaping pregnancy and childbirth.

Undoubtedly, this would be a tremendous step toward resolving the moral, legal, and political crisis of abortion. Might I add, however, that such future generations would also come to regard today’s abortion regime as horrifically grotesque and flagrantly immoral? When abortion is no longer a necessary evil to vindicate bodily autonomy, future generations will see abortion in its naked form: evil. And history does not treat well the promoters of “necessary” evil.

Jesse has thoughts on reproductive rights, too:

If you squint a little, artificial wombs look like a solution that can satisfy everyone: A mother who does not want to complete her pregnancy could surrender the child to a designated agency, much as one would currently under safe haven laws, whereupon it would be received into an artificial womb, carried to term, and adopted. The mother gets her autonomy and is relieved of the burden, pro-life interests get a non-terminated fetus.

Everyone is happy, yes?

I suspect this would satisfy many moderate pro-life and pro-choice individuals, while creating new issues and some shifted goalposts on both sides. On the pro-choice side, you may have some arguing that even being required to surrender the fetus is an intolerable imposition on the mother’s autonomy: they may prefer to terminate their pregnancy in a different way, they will have to live with the burden of knowing their child is alive in the world (the very characterization of this knowledge as a burden is a topic prime for interesting debate), or perhaps most intriguing of all, they may simply argue that the very decision to bring a life fully into the world is one which should lie solely with the mother (this brings to mind the fascinating question of how the availability of artificial wombs might affect paternal rights in deciding the course of a pregnancy).

On the pro-life side, you will surely have purists arguing that artificial wombs are aberrant and unnatural, and that health risks they impose on the gestating fetus are unconscionable. I also expect moralistic arguments to the effect that a mother who is pregnant through consensual intercourse does not deserve to be relieved of their pregnancy––that they have a positive responsibility to the child to carry it fully to term. Most interesting to me is not so much the change in position that this would entail, as how it would bring to the forefront of these arguments the centrality of conservative moral values: choice, consequence, and more than a little biblical bear-your-sin stoicism.

And last but not least, Susanna explains why she favors research to push this technology forward:

I’m 24 years old, and while I don’t expect to have a baby soon, I think I would like to in the future. I’m not in the least excited about being pregnant though. It seems both extremely uncomfortable and extremely inconvenient. A way to make a (biological) family without that long, painful, dangerous process sounds wonderfully liberating.

I wonder how artificial wombs might shift our broader social attitudes toward motherhood. If babies didn’t come out of women, might they be less of a “women’s thing” and might it seem less natural to assume women will take on more baby-related responsibilities? I don’t think calling something unnatural is even close to giving a definitive reason to reject it. Human life in a “natural” state, without any of our technological advances, would be a lot less pleasant in many ways than it is right now. There may be many upsides to natural birth (lots of evidence suggests many benefits of breastfeeding, for example, and it’s hard to see how that could come along with artificial wombs) and this isn’t to deny them. But the potential seems huge. I, for one, would strongly support medical (and ethical!) research into the possibility of artificial wombs for humans.

Thank you for all of your responses, and see you next week.