Ectogenesis, Feminism, and the Metaphysics of Pregnancy

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Image description: Foetus with umblical cord

Image description: Foetus with umblical cord. Souce: Medical Graphics.de  Licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

In 2017, a study published in Nature reported the successful development of 8 lamb foetuses in large backs mimicking the conditions of a sheep’s uterus.[1] Though the researchers maintained their findings would only improve current neonatal incubation techniques and care, the technology’s ability to replicate the functional features of a uterus has resulted in popular media recasting their efforts as advancing the development of artificial wombs.

In 2017, a study published in Nature reported the successful development of 8 lamb foetuses in large backs mimicking the conditions of a sheep’s uterus

The extent to which this diagnosis of the technology’s potential is debatable,[2] but such discussions are overshadowed by speculation over the possibility of human ectogenesis. Ectogenesis denotes the process of developing a foetus outside of the uterus. And the renewed interest in its possibility should come as no surprise since the concept has enjoyed a long and illustrious history in Western culture. Coined in the early 1920s by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, ectogenesis was popularised shortly thereafter by author Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World. A brief overview of its reference indicates the concept has since been discussed widely and in a variety of contexts, from scientific studies[3] to feminist manifestos.[4]

A distinction not always considered in these discussions, however, is the different kinds of ectogenesis that are or might be made possible. This could be because the term ‘ectogensis’ does not always feature in the aforementioned discussions, but instead understood as a device or system. Still, acknowledging the difference between full and partial ectogenesis offers a more nuanced discussion of not only the different kinds of ethical issues each raises but the extent to which they are possible too. I have already alluded to the two kinds of ectogenesis I wish to consider: full and partial. Full ectogenesis sees the entire process of gestation occur outside of the uterus. In partial ectogenesis, only a portion of this process is outsourced.

Current technologies like IVF and incubation resemble partial ectogenesis, though full ectogenesis is yet to become a scientific reality. But current rhetoric surrounding ectogenesis suggests that the term is being used to anticipate and capture the latter – that is, something capable of far more than what IVF or incubation achieves now.[5] Against this contextual backdrop, Flake and colleagues’ ‘biobags’ bear striking resemblance to a technology that promises to one day achieve this: artificial wombs.

Flake and colleagues’ ‘biobags’ bear striking resemblance to a technology that promises to one day achieve this: artificial wombs.

As far as speculation goes, then, the potential benefits of ectogenesis promise to be significant and far-reaching. With the ability to transfer and/or develop foetuses in artificial wombs, care of premature neonates and gestating persons vulnerable to risky pregnancies could be significantly improved. The tension between preserving the health of the gestating person and protecting the life of the foetus would be reduced, if not eliminated. Others, like Shulamith Firestone, have more controversially identified a particular social value in ectogenesis as forming part of the solution to women’s oppression.[6] As Firestone points out, to celebrate ectogenesis on purely therapeutic grounds would be to ignore its full potential.

If this is the case, artificial wombs promise significant progress on a number of issues currently affecting our society – including, and perhaps especially, gender inequality. It is worth considering this claim, in particular, more closely, then. By Firestone’s account, the biological difference in reproduction has caused an unfair division in reproductive labour. Thus, much of the burden of reproduction falls exclusively on women and, when combined with the values, norms, and ideals of a patriarchal society, quickly creates the conditions necessary to render the process oppressive for them. In eliminating this sexual difference, ectogenesis could eliminate what was otherwise a crucial condition in ensuring women’s oppression. With foetuses developing in artificial wombs, gestating persons would no longer be bound by a laborious and oftentimes uncomfortable gestative process, but instead free to pursue whatever (other) interests and desires they likely possess.

With foetuses developing in artificial wombs, gestating persons would no longer be bound by a laborious and oftentimes uncomfortable gestative process, but instead free to pursue whatever (other) interests and desires they likely possess.

Before examining this argument, I best justify the focus on Firestone here. In the wake of Flake and colleagues’ success, and the current relevance of any technology capable of significant improvement to women’s situations,[7] it is not unwarranted to revisit the feminist’s position, 40 years later or not. Her account is supported amongst some contemporary feminists,[8] though criticised for a number of reasons too.[9] Whether or not one agrees with Firestone’s position, it remains the case that her argument is obviously regarded as relevant to the debate about ectogenesis’ justifiability. At the very least, it is worth re-considering the plausibility of her stance in light of technological advancements that may very well realise the future she once envisioned.

The choice to focus on her should not be misconstrued, however: I disagree with Firestone’s hypothesis. She wishes to argue that discomfort and risk are not essential to the female experience. And while certainly true, it still holds that we need not rely on the notion of some mysterious feminine essence to recognise, like Simone De Beauvoir[10] and, more recently, Iris Marion Young,[11] that there is still some ‘unity which can be described and made intelligible’ to our concept of ‘Woman’ or the category of ‘female’ itself - even with individual variation accounted for.[12] Just as there appear to be broad patterns of movement associated with The Female which supposedly mark her as a weaker species (consider such trite phrases as ‘throwing like a girl’[13]), it might be argued that, in the hive mind of the patriarchy, reproduction and all its work is likewise another unifying experience of the female existence – discomfort and risk especially included.

In the hive mind of the patriarchy, reproduction and all its work is likewise another unifying experience of the female existence – discomfort and risk especially included.

Note that physically conceiving and carrying a child to term in one’s own womb is the “unifying experience” of interest here, nor nurturing and/or parenting a child either. This analysis is particularly mindful not to align with those naturalist arguments that exclude – intentionally or not – such marginalised groups as transwomen, women who cannot or do not wish to reproduce and/or become mothers, or couples otherwise unable to conceive (to name but only a few) from this important discussion. What I am suggesting, though, is that these concepts inform the collective understanding of what it means to be a ‘Woman’ or ‘Female’ which, in turn, informs the phenomenology of female embodiment. To be a woman in Indian culture is, for instance, to be a womb, a mother, and a homemaker: one marries to make babies. But before dismissing this as an example of cultural-backwardness, we would do well to remember that even on the other side of the (developed) world, those privileged enough to pursue worthy interests outside of their reproductive duties are still reminded of their ticking biological clocks, their profound loss and what they are ‘missing’, and/or, in more extreme cases, their selfishness.[14]

The point to be gleaned here is that recognising the central role reproduction plays in informing and establishing the female experience does not prevent us from recognising its detrimental impact on their lives, as Firestone seems to believe. If the feminist approach to women’s liberation is nominalism, then I believe it ought to be questioned now.

For instance, the assumption that the technology ensures the fair distribution of reproductive labour is only plausible if it were the case that reproductive work is limitable to the gestative process alone. This is not the case and is unlikely to become so in our current patriarchal society. Post-birth it is women who are (largely) expected to breastfeed or pump milk, raise and nurture the child, and so on. Again, this is not an exclusionary criterion intended to sideline other groups who can and do become parents from this particular debate. Rather, it is merely stating a fact. Until the stigma and censure directed at those who do not to engage in reproductive activities – regardless of whether their deviation from this cultural norm was a choice or not - can be completely rid of, it is unclear what ectogenesis would do to address such a central feature of what ultimately makes reproduction specifically oppressive for them in the first place.

For instance, the assumption that the technology ensures the fair distribution of reproductive labour is only plausible if it were the case that reproductive work is limitable to the gestative process alone.

Another consideration is that ectogenesis, broadly speaking, may, in fact, harm the feminist cause by ultimately perpetuating a collective inclination towards the devaluation of reproductive work overall. A rudimentary understanding of the metaphysics of pregnancy and the conceptual models we use to understand the gestative process allows us to show why this would potentially be the case. According to Kingma, there are two ways in which the pregnancy process can be understood:

  • Parthood view: The view that the foetus is a part of the gestating person, in the way of an arm, leg, or more appropriately, a kidney is, is the view advocated by Kingma herself. It is important to note that this position does not specify what kind of thing the foetus is, only that it is related to the gestating person as a proper part. This metaphysical understanding of the foetal-gestator relationship allegedly underwrites the cultural Parthood model, which features in talk of pregnant ‘bumps’ and such slogans as ‘my body, my choice’.
  • Container view: The view that the foetus is contained within the gestating person, existing as an entirely separate entity to them. As with the parthood view, this view does not specify what the foetus exactly is, only that it exists inside the gestating person without also being a part of her. This metaphysical understanding of the foetal-gestator relationship allegedly underwrites the cultural Foetal Container model, which depicts the gestating person as ‘carrying’ the fœtus.[15]

The Foetal Container model is said to be the dominant way in which pregnancy is both conceived and depicted in Western culture. The frequency with which we hear of ‘buns in the oven’ provides some support for this claim, but the efforts to depict (i) the physical continuity between foetuses and the subsequent baby (such the depiction of foetuses in the womb with white skin rather than the purple skin that they actually have) and (ii) the physical discontinuity between foetuses and gestating persons (such as the depiction of the foetus as a ‘floating astronaut’ rather than embedded in the uterine wall within the gestating person’s body), are telling too.

The Foetal Container model is said to be the dominant way in which pregnancy is both conceived and depicted in Western culture.

Over time, this model has been used to portray pregnancy as a case of mere containment, [16] which, in practice, can and has been used to harm gestating persons. In India’s commercial surrogacy industry, for instance, fertility clinics both likened surrogates to something fungible (e.g., a container) and treated them as such by using the language of the Foetal Container model (e.g., by calling them houses for the foetus).[17] While the metaphysical Container view may itself be morally neutral, its cultural manifestation as the Foetal Container model has evidently developed and been used in a patriarchal context for significant instrumental harm. In this way, the ‘corrupted’ Foetal Container model seems to lend itself more easily to the devaluation of gestative work in minimising the role of the gestating person, than does its counterpart, the Parthood model, which in turn places the gestating person at the centre of the entire pregnancy process.

Of course, this does not prove in any way that the Foetal Container model is necessarily morally dubious, only that it is more easily bent to satisfy the will of a patriarchal society. Still, some may remain unconvinced by this loose relationship between the metaphysics and the ethics. In this case, then, it is worth pointing out that further to its moral dubiousness, the Foetal Container model appears somewhat factually dubious too. Recall that the metaphysical Containment view describes pregnancy as involving two separate entities. The biological realities of pregnancy, however, suggest a far more intimate connection between foetus and gestator: the umbilical cord, which grows out of the pregnant organism and into the placenta, which itself grows out of the uterine wall to connect the foetus to the maternal organism; the foetus and the maternal organism sharing one external boundary, challenging the claim that the two are somehow separate; and, reinforcing this, the lack of separating cavity between the foetus and the maternal organism (as would be expected were we dealing with two entities that were not also a part of the other).[18]

What bearing does this metaphysical debate have on the fate of the liberatory potential of ectogenesis? According to feminist Irina Aristarkhova, the very idea of using ectogenesis to replace some or all stages of pregnancy presupposes a separateness between foetuses and gestating persons. In her words, “ectogenesis is a workable concept only if one assumes that the embryo and the mother are two separate and therefore separable entities”.[19] Indeed, it seems that current discussions about ectogenesis employs or assume key tenets of the Foetal Container model, with some going so far as to liken the uterus to “a clever incubator”.[20] Again, it would be too quick to conclude that ectogenesis therefore entails the Foetal Container model, but it still follows that any technology employing and perpetuating key tenets of an evidently problematic model may unwittingly lead to it normalising and perhaps perpetuating these very same problems (e.g., the devaluation of gestative work; a mistruth about the true nature of pregnancy; a dismissal of the relationship between foetus and gestating persons).

Ectogenesis is a workable concept only if one assumes that the embryo and the mother are two separate and therefore separable entities -- Irina Aristarkhova

This analysis does not reject the enormous therapeutic potential of ectogenesis, nor preclude the fact that ectogenesis and artificial womb technology may still prove liberating for a great number of gestating persons. In other words, concluding that ectogenesis may share some relationship with a metaphysically problematic model does not amount to calling the technology itself necessarily problematic, nor for a moratorium or pre-emptive ban on the research and development of any associated technologies.

But when a technology is either founded on or perpetuating a certain representation of a group of people, and when that representation has been used elsewhere to denigrate and mistreat that very same group, good practice dictates that we must question the extent to which its ability to alleviate a biological constraint is truly serving the feminist cause overall, if it is unable to address the harmful attitudes that make this constraint oppressive in the first place. And so, as we move into our brave new world and further into the debate about the ethics of ectogenesis and artificial wombs, it bears to consider all realms of possibility through a critical lens – speculatively or otherwise.


[1] Partridge, E., Davey, M., Hornick, M., McGovern, P., Mejaddam, A., & Vrecenak, J. et al. (2017) ‘An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb’, Nature Communications, 8: 15112.

[2] From a discussion with Elselijn Kingma about her forthcoming paper in Bioethics.

[3] E.g., Bryner, B., Gray, B., Perkins, E., Davis, R., Hoffman, H., Barks, J., Owens, G., Bocks, M., Rojas-Peña, A., Hirschl, R., Bartlett, R., and Mychaliska, G. (2014) ‘An extracorporeal artificial placenta supports extremely premature lambs for 1 week’, Journal of pediatric surgery, 50.1: 44–49.; Klass, P. (1996) ‘The Artificial Womb is Born’, The New York Times Magazine. Accessed online in March 2019 at: www.nytimes.com/1996/09/29/magazine/the-artificial-womb-is-born.html

[4] Firestone, S. (1974) The Dialectic of Sex, London: Verso.

[5] Please note that much of the discussion thus far derives from a paper co-authored with Suki Finn. The analysis to come is adapted from and elaborates on these ideas too.

[6] Firestone (1974). Op.cit.

[7] Assisted reproductive technologies are one example; birth control another.

[8] Smajdor, A. (2007) ‘The moral imperative for ectogenesis’, Cambridge Quarterly Of Healthcare Ethics, 16.03: 336–345.

[9] See for example Donchin, A. (1986) ‘The future of mothering: Reproductive technology and feminist theory’, Hypatia, 1.02: 121:138.

[10] de Beauvoir, S. (1974) The Second Sex: Penguin.

[11] Young, I (1980) ‘Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment motility and spatiality’, Human Studies, 3.01: 137-156.

[12] Young (1980). Op. cit. p139.

[13] Young (1980). Op. cit.

[14] Smajdor (2007). Op. cit.

[15] Kingma, E. (forthcoming) ‘Were you a part of your mother?: The Metaphysics of Pregnancy, Mind.

[16] Smith, B., & Brogaard, B. (2003) ‘Sixteen days’, Journal of Medical Philosophy, 28.1: 45-7.

[17] Based on my analysis in my Master’s thesis. See the work of sociologist Amrita Pande for further insight into the Indian commercial surrogacy industry and the ill-treatment of surrogates. 

[18] Kingma E. (forthcoming). Op. cit.  

[19] Aristarkhova, I. (2005) ‘Ectogenesis and Mother as Machine’, Body & Society, 11.3: 43–59. p51.

[20] For example Gosden, R. (2000) Designing Babies: The Brave New World of Reproductive Technology, New York: Freeman and Co.