The Artificial Womb

Every area of technological innovation has an idea that can serve as a kind of ‘Rorschach Test’ for revealing some of our deepest intuitions.l Consider, e.g., the idea of a fully automated factory. This idea can be used to bring out a person’s intuitions as to the progressive potential of cybernetics. Some people will share David Noble’s view that we are already heading in the direction of such factories and that workers should militantly resist present uses of automation before it is too late. 2 Others will follow Andre Gorz who sees automated factories as playing a key role in the liberation of workers via a ‘society of free time’. 3 My own view, developed in another place,4 is that this focus on how present uses of technology will affect traditional worker constituencies needs to be supplemented with an equal concern with how present uses of automation will affect other non-privileged constituencies. In particular, we need to relate our critique of present uses of automation to the interests articulated by the contemporary movements for racial and sexual equality.

In what follows, I will be suggesting that the idea of ectogenesis – the complete gestation of the human fetus in an artificial womb – can serve as a kind of ‘Rorschach Test’ regarding what have been called ‘the new reproductive technologies’. That is, it can be used to bring out radically different intuitions regarding the progressive potential of this influential scientific-technological project. I will begin by contrasting the generally positive reaction of Peter Singer and Deane Wells 5 with the highly critical reaction of Patricia Spallone. 6 I will then go on to suggest that Shulamith Firestone’s early remarks on ectogenesis add an important di- mension to a critical discussion of the new reproductive tech- nologies. 7 I will argue that Firestone should be read as being primarily concerned with the problem of ‘false consciousness’ as it arises in this context. That is, I will argue for a reading of Firestone’s work that takes her to be primarily concerned with getting women to reflect critically on their present attitudes towards such things as infertility, motherhood and biological parenthood rather than naively trying to set out a blueprint for ‘post-revolutionary society’. This is not to suggest, however, that I will be endorsing all aspects of Firestone’s position. Indeed, I will stress that her vision of political struggle needs to be expanded to give an equal role to all of the contemporary movements for equality (racial and economic as well as sexual). Only then, I will argue, will we be able to develop a truly critical and historically effective response to problematic features of the new reproduc- tive technologies. I will conclude by noting how the novelist Marge Piercy deals with the idea of ectogenesis. 8 I will suggest that we would do well to follow her lead and relate our thinking about ectogenesis not only to the concerns addressed by the movement for sexual equality but also to the concerns addressed by the various movements for racial and economic equality. In this sense, what follows should be seen as providing another case where a successful challenge to a new technology will require a difference-respecting coalition between the various movements for equality.

A final introductory note: Ectogenesis can no longer be dismissed as ‘just science fiction’. As the editors of Test-Tube Women point out, 1988 saw ‘the officially published beginning of ectogenesis’ . 9 Nor can it be dismissed as still too far in the future to merit serious consideration here and now. Whether we like it or not, the idea of ectogenesis is implicit in the ‘logic’ of the new reproductive technologies as they are presently being developed and deployed. Indeed, ectogenesis is sometimes referred to as the ‘back end’ of a project the ‘front end’ of which is in vitro fertilization. This means that, insofar as people support such things as in vitro fertilization (in a quest, say, for a solution to a ‘fertility’ problem), they can’t simply ignore the more remote techniques implicit in the larger scientific and technological project. […]

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