Artificial Wombs: Key to a Gender-free Society?

Some see new reproductive technologies as a way to free women from the burden of being baby makers

When the news broke this past week that scientists created an “artificial womb” that grew fetal lambs to healthy births, many celebrated — perhaps it could save extremely premature human babies, too.

Others saw the ethical complications.

“I could imagine a time, you know sort of [a] ‘Brave New World,’ where we’re growing embryos from the beginning to the end outside of our bodies,” Dena Davis, a bioethicist at Lehigh University, told NPR. In the same article, Scott Gelfand, a bioethicist at Oklahoma State University, stated, “The ethical implications are just so far-reaching.”

But the idea of an artificial womb has been around for a long time, and it offers something else us besides safer premature births and ethical neightmares: It may be the only way to create a gender-neutral world. In fact, it’s a postgenderist’s dream come true.

According to postgenderism — the belief that “men and women should use advanced biotechnologies to reduce the gender gap and create entirely new opportunities for sexual expression” — we’d be much freer to explore both our masculine and feminine sides if our bodies and personalities were no longer constrained and limited by gendered traits.

It’s clear that gendered expectations make many of us — especially married women — unhappy. We are increasingly seeking equality in all aspects of life, from work to romantic partnerships.

What if we actually were a gender-neutral society? Would women still earn less than men in the workplace? Would we still expect men to be breadwinners and women caretakers (and as much as we say we don’t want that, we still fall back into gendered roles)? Would work-life issues continue to be seen as a woman’s issue instead of a family issue?

Shulamith Firestone, a futurist who was instrumental in the 1970s cyberfeminist movement (I didn’t even know there was one) believed artificial wombs and other reproductive technologies, including gender selection and IVF — both of which are in use today — were a way to free women from the burden of being baby makers. While there’s nothing quite like holding and smelling your baby straight from labor — and I’ve done it twice — in some ways, that makes sense. Pregnancy and childbirth are still incredibly dangerous for women, and not just in developing countries. And let’s not forget the incredible dictates women are under when pregnant — from what they eat and drink and do (including the rise of the personhood movement (shudders) — and the postpartum depression many suffer from. There are also many, many things than can go wrong for the baby, too, beyond premature birth.

Not only would ectogenesis — the process of growing a fetus outside a human body in an artificial womb — save women and babies from those dangers, but just as assisted reproductive means have allowed the rise in fatherless births and mothers by choice, it would also make it much easier for men — gay, trans, hetero, whatever — to have children without needing a surrogate. As former transhumanist presidential candidate (yes, there was one) and now California gubernatorial candidate Zoltan Istvan notes, we are closer to making this a reality than some might think.

Given President Trump’s decision to reinstate and expand the so-called Mexico City policy as well as other assaults on women’s reproductive rights removing baby-making from being a woman’s “job” might even the score, although I’m not against regulating men’s reproductive rights — what’s fair is fair, guys.

Still, I just can’t help but wonder if this is what it will take to finally — finally! — free us from the gendered roles many heteros gravitate toward once they wed, but especially once they become parents. I am much messier than the two men I married, yet I was the one who was expected to keep everything clean and tidy. Why? And when I became a mom, well, guess who took time off from work when the boys were sick or needed to get to the doctor or dentist? Yeah, you know who …

For the record, I am not promoting ectogenesis, and the transhumanist movement is, well, scary and unappealing to me. I am loath to think that we might have to rely on technology to create a world that’s more equitable for women while also freeing men from the shackles of our narrow views of masculinity. But in many ways — from our thinking, choices, actions and science — we are already moving toward gender neutrality. The question is, how far do we want to take it and what are willing to do to achieve it?