Wombs in Revolt

In the 1970s, Shulamith Firestone wrote: the end goal of feminist revolution must be […] not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself […] The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (or at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally.” This hopeful if unsettling vision of the artificial womb entices me, a 1970s harbinger of the “gender is over” rallying cry.

Firestone’s utopian manifesto, penned in a world where birth control and in vitro fertilisation were new to the reproductive conversation, was buoyed by its relative improbability. Maybe Firestone really believed that the new reproductive technologies of her era heralded the arrival of ectogenesis sometime after. More likely it was the stuff of fantasy, provocatively introduced to challenge readers to reconsider the status quo.

But what once felt like fantasy seems increasingly more real. A human pregnancy is 40 weeks of gestation, with any baby born before 37 weeks considered preterm. The point at which a human fetus can survive outside the mother’s womb (otherwise known as “fetal viability”) sat around 28 weeks of gestation when Roe v. Wade was handed down almost exactly forty-five years ago. Today, following progress in neonatal intensive care technologies, viability in most wealthy countries is somewhere between 22 and 26 weeks, depending on the resources available in a given area and hospital. The health of babies born before 28 weeks remains precarious. In April of 2016, however, a group of scientists in Philadelphia developed a partial artificial womb that may allow for fetuses born at the cusp of viability (22-23 weeks) to gestate to term outside the mother’s body. Trialed with lamb fetuses at the equivalent of 22-24 human weeks of gestation, the technology, dubbed the “Biobag”, mimics the conditions of a fetus in utero, surrounding it with artificial amniotic fluid. If the Biobag is successful, almost half of a fetus’s gestation might be able to occur outside the womb. In August, scientists in Australia replicated the experiment, with the unnerving addition of dubbing the technology “ex-vivo uterine environment,” or EVE.

Those involved in these experiments insist that artificial wombs are not their intention, that these technologies are simply to support the survival of preterm babies, and that full ectogenesis is the “stuff of science fiction.” But science has continually moved several paces ahead of law and ethics, and preparing for what is possible in the future is also a way of investing in the present. Women of color writers and activists have long identified how movements championing reproductive rights and technologies centralize the reproductive needs and circumstances of white, cis, moneyed women. Imagining the artificial womb as a reality, and putting those whom reproductive technologies have historically endangered (women of color, queer and trans men and women, immigrant women) at the center of our thinking, provides an opportunity to consider how existing legal frameworks can be altered to account for other reproductive changes to come.

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The crux of Firestone’s utopia is the idea of gender becoming essentially irrelevant for building families.  Since the Supreme Court heard Obergefell and granted same-sex couples the right to marry, equal acknowledgement of gay and lesbian couples as legal paThe crux of Firestone’s utopia is the idea of gender as essentially irrelevant for building familiesents should follow. But a slew of cases have cropped up post-Obergefell in which states have refused to do exactly that. In just one example, a court made the claim that a lesbian non-biological mother whose partner conceived using IVF was not a legal mother, and in fact, that the anonymous sperm donor the couple had used should be considered an absentee father. Given that it is unheard of for a court to consider a sperm donor an “absentee father” over the male partner of a woman who conceives using IVF (a circumstance that is not uncommon), to deny lesbian partners the same right is explicit discrimination.

The existing legal framework around parenthood is one that still holds a cis, heterosexual, two-parent family model at its core. As long as this remains true, the law will continually refer back to one particular model of kinship, and while it may expand to include same-sex partners (or, as in several states, attempt to deny them), it inhibits the recognition of families that don’t look like this: families with three or more involved parents who may or may not be related to a child, families with single parents, families where children are parented across generations.

So where does Firestone’s artificial womb fit in? One way of thinking about parenthood in a legal sense is through the idea of intention. This doctrine holds that the individuals that should be recognized as parents are those who show sustained intent over time to have and to raise a child. In California, Senate Bill No. 272 allows families to be formed via “intention” before a child is born. The bill lets courts recognize more than two individuals as legal parents where this is an accurate representation of the intent of their family, and in circumstances where it would be “detrimental to the child” were the court to neglect to recognize this. Though far from perfect, the California bill is one example of a legal movement toward acknowledging difference in familial forms and decentralizing the two-parent, heterosexual, “normative” family.

Could the artificial womb, in interrupting gestational parenthood and further complicating biological parenthood, provide grounds for parental intention to take precedence as the base of family formation? The artificial womb, and the possible protections of parental intent, potentially opens a slew of possibilities including the elimination of the need for surrogates, the crumbling of the barrier of the “biological clock,” the irrelevance of sex to parenthood. I’m drawn to these visions of a future in which parenting roles are established not by gender, age, or biology, but intent.

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In our current reality, parental rights flowing unproblematically from intention is an impossibility. In many states, assisted reproductive technologies are prohibitively expensive: IVF is available only to those who can pay for it, and given the current political landscape, were an artificial womb to be introduced, it would be accessible only to the wealthiest individuals. Tracing the historical arc of how reproductive technologies have been used and the climate around access to reproductive care in the United States, the availability of an artificial womb under existing circumstances might only be dangerous. In a society that criminalizes pregnant women for attempting to self-abort, where more value is placed on the potential life of the fetus than on the rights of the mother, and where babies are frequently taken from women deemed to be unsuitable mothers almost as soon as they are born, the artificial womb is plainly dystopic. Given that many women already struggle to access abortion, the artificial womb might be used to justify a total abortion ban in favor of fetal extraction and adoption. Pregnant people facing drug and alcohol addictions, already treated punitively (and already frequently denied rights to their own children), might experience the artificial womb as a mandatory alternative to incarceration. Ectogenesis might be made available to wealthy women as a solution to the difficulties incurred in pregnancy, in place of addressing the issues in our society that limit the possible pleasures of pregnancy for everyone.

Firestone’s artificial womb, though idealistic, was not something she suggested would land, fully equipped for utopian use, without any effort. It is the “end goal of [a] feminist revolution,” the thing waiting on the other side of insurrection, uprising, revolt.  Maybe, then, considering the path toward the artificial womb has less to do with the thing itself (especially given that it remains a technology which may never arrive), and more to do with the work on the way there.

It matters who you are when it comes to parenting rights already. It also matters when it comes to accessing reproductive health care, and to whether new reproductive technologies are accessible to you. For women of color in America, for queer and trans people, immigrant women, and disabled people, new reproductive technologies have most frequently meant new ways for their bodies to be subjugated and subjected to experimentation. For ectogenesis to shatter our existing, engrained social understandings of what constitutes gender, and how we build families in beneficial ways, the “feminist revolution” must do the work of putting those whom these technologies have historically made vulnerable at the center of the conversation.

–Claire Horn researches the legal and ethical implications of artificial wombs at Birkbeck Law. Editor at http://www.whatfreshwitch.com/ and writer on reproductive technologies, dead birds and butterflies, selkies, and more.