In Labor

Artificial wombs may be on the horizon, but automating childbirth won’t automatically abolish all forms of gendered labor

In the limpid waters of an electrolyte solution, under the close watch of assembled scientists, lamb fetuses grow guts and brains. They sprout limbs and eyes. They begin to move.

These are among the first successful beneficiaries of “bio-bags”: plastic contraptions that mimic uteruses, providing the heat, nutrients, and liquid environment necessary for fetuses to grow. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who described their efforts in a recent paper published in Nature Communications, hope that the bio-bag can be used to give premature babies a better chance at survival than earlier attempts to simulate the conditions of the womb. Previously, a team at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell University had succeeded in growing a mouse embryo almost to full term by adding engineered endometrium tissue to a bioengineered extra-uterine “scaffold.”

Scientists have long dreamed of uncoupling the process of birth from the messiness of human biology. In 1924, J.B.S. Haldane foretold a future where, 150 years on, fewer than 30 percent of children would be “born of woman.” He christened this speculative technology ectogenesis. Imagining how a future college student would describe the phenomenon, Haldane wrote, “Had it not been for ectogenesis, … there can be little doubt that civilization would have collapsed within a measurable time owing to the greater fertility of the less desirable members of the population in almost all countries.”

The mere thought of ectogenesis has long been enough to stoke dystopic fears of what artificial wombs might wreak. But conventional child bearing results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people a year

In line with that blending of eugenics and utopia, the mere thought of ectogenesis has also reliably stoked dystopic fears of what artificial wombs might wreak. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World used artificial wombs as an emblem of world of carefully administrated comfort, in which people live as they were born, assigned to a caste, cradled in a chemically sustained stupor, stripped of meaningful human contact even on an umbilical level. The “hatcheries” that house countless ranks of artificial wombs are the first thing we encounter in the novel, positing them as the basis of a world where “natural” familial relations are replaced by synthetic, state-organized relations optimized for complacency and for social control.

But to this dystopia, supporters of artificial wombs respond with another. Conventional child bearing results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people a year, with many more risking life-threatening complications. Such levels of misery inspired Shulamith Firestone to call birth “barbaric” and welcome the prospect of ciswomen being unshackled from their biological fate. In her account in The Dialectic of Sex, synthetic reproduction could spell “the freeing of women from the tyranny of their biology by any means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole.” It may be “unnatural,” but, Firestone argues, “the ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to transcend nature: We can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.”

It’s early days yet. Alan Flake, one of the researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, cautions against such speculation about the end of human child bearing. “It’s complete science fiction to think that you can take an embryo and get it through the early developmental process and put it on our machine without the mother being the critical element there.” Even so, trials on human fetuses may be only a few years away.

But there is another sense in which Flake is right to call the prospect of artificial wombs “science fiction”: Not because they are necessarily far-fetched, but because the prospect of them adheres to science fiction’s particular ability to test the bounds of what we consider normal, natural, and human.

Not all women can give birth, and not all people who can give birth are women. But it remains inarguable that womanhood and birth are inextricably fused in our cultural imaginary. By disentangling birth from women’s bodies, artificial wombs threaten to weaken that association in which many people remain deeply invested. Social conservatives — such as some modern catholic bioethicists — look on in dismay as artificial wombs present a technological assault on the sanctity of the family unit and the sentimental celebration of mothers for their supposedly selfless nurturing, effortless empathy, and gentle unambitious nature. As conservative doyenne Phyllis Schlafly put it in The Power of Positive Women (1977), “the Positive Woman looks upon her femaleness and her fertility as part of her purpose, her potential, and her power.”

Ectogenesis undermines the idea that women’s lives are — and indeed should be — ultimately invested in making and caring for babies. That biological fatalism comes in handy if you want to keep traditional gender roles largely the way they are — that is, to keep women having babies and performing domestic labor for scant recognition and even less pay. It mobilizes a heady mix of different ideologies; from cack-handed pseudoscience claiming compassion is hard-wired into female brain to the language of romantic love, mobilized to guilt trip women into thinking that refusing birth (or demanding a wage for their trouble) would be to cheapen their feminine capacity for selfless caring. Even to deny their own womanhood. In Against Love: A Polemic, Laura Kipnis argues that “if modern love has power over us, domesticity is its enforcement wing: the iron dust mop in the velvet glove.” This essentially privatizes childbirth and all the domestic labor it involves, making it, in the words of feminist academic Camille Barbagallo, “a private matter for which individuals bear the costs and responsibility.”

These are the terms with which we’re used to talking about female life — still underwritten by the imperative to reproduce, reproduce, reproduce. Sure, you might be an artist or a politician on the side, but “motherhood is the most important job in the world,” as Ivanka Trump has declared. And it’s important to remember that this job stretches far beyond the basic biological processes of gestating a fetus and bearing it into the world. It also comprises the domestic labor, care work, and emotional labor necessary to turn a zygote into a human thing that talks and walks around and blows out its birthday candles and files its tax returns. The uncompensated provision of this work has been fundamental to the ways in which capitalist economy functions.

The advent of private washing machines saved on labor, but that labor — once public, visible, collective, waged, and less explicitly gendered — became the responsibility of individual women, cloistered within the confines of the bourgeois home

In Marxism and Women’s Oppression, Lise Vogel argues that all capitalist production draws on deep on the wellspring of free labor into which women are regularly cajoled — the reproductive labor that keeps capitalism stocked with a ready supply of fresh workers. But the technology of gender governs work performed with the hands and the mind than as well as the uterus. In explaining the Marxist feminist theory of social reproduction, Thithi Bhattacharya points out that childbirth is just one part of this process, which also includes “activities that regenerate the worker outside the production process and allow her to return to it. These include, among a host of others, food, a bed to sleep in, but also care in psychical ways that keep a person whole.” Women also work to “maintain and regenerate non-workers outside the production process — i.e. those who are future or past workers, such as children, adults out of the workforce for whatever reason, be it old age, disability or unemployment.” In The Problem With Work, writer and theorist Kathi Weeks claims that this work is inseparable from our vision of what it is to be a woman: “Doing this job is part of what it means to do gender.”

What, then, do we make of the artificial womb — a technology that seemingly allows people to control such production without the complications of managing human sociality along gender lines? By potentially automating childbearing, it seems to offer us the chance to unpick the stitches that tie people with certain kinds of organs to certain ways of living. That is to say, it might clear the path toward the abolition of gender.

But a quick look at history reveals that it is not so simple. Aspects of the work of gender — the labor of social reproduction described above — have been automated before, with ambivalent results. The advent of washing machines is sometimes hailed as having liberated women from the burden of low-tech laundry, a task which could swallow up countless hours. At the same time, though, that technological shift brought with it a sea change in how domestic work was organized more generally. When the private washing machine came into being, U.K. cities were marked by social washhouses, where even the poorest could take their laundry. Though the labor was still back-breaking, the sociality of these spaces stood as testament to a way of organizing domestic labor alien to our modern mythologies of private domesticity — that it could be collective — even that it could be waged.

Then, outmoded and out-marketed, these washhouses began to shut up shop, and washing clothes — labor that was once public, visible, collective, waged, and less explicitly gendered — became for many households the responsibility of individual women, silent and invisible, cloistered within the confines of the bourgeois home. Washing machines saved on labor but also set the stage for the rise of the housewife.

The political ramifications of an invention are not dependent simply on what it does but how it’s used, and by whom. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to conjure a future in which the gender-revolutionary potential of artificial wombs is seamlessly metabolized by the machinery of capitalism and patriarchy: Artificial wombs leased only to straight, married couples, of the right religion and income bracket. Lower-class women tending the hatcheries, raising the kids in the first crucial stages of development. Ectogenesis used as an excuse for further roll-backs on tentative 20th century concessions toward the legalization of abortion.

So we find ourselves caught at a crux of different possible futures: Firestone’s daydream of transcending the barbarism of “natural” birth on one side; artificial wombs reinforcing the armory of patriarchy on the other. So we may look again for lessons in a sphere where prospective futures are explored and the different potential ramifications of technology are elaborated: science fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may be as pertinent a guide to reproductive futures as Huxley’s dystopia. In Gilead, the fascist theocracy of the near-future that Atwood describes, birth and reproduction are highly regulated, but Brave New World’s depersonalized and disembodied ultra-tech hatcheries are replaced by live women, bound to a lifetime of sexual and reproductive servitude. Rather than replace women’s bodies with reproductive machines, the women tasked with childbirth are simply treated as machines, valued entirely in terms that particular biological capacity.

With artificial wombs, the conspicuous labor of childbirth could be rendered invisible, mitigating one of the more overt inequities around which a broader insurrection could be organized

Like all successful dystopias, this caricature persuades not because it’s fully plausible in its details, but because we feel the shiver of recognition in its underlying logic. The war on women has always trained its crosshairs on women’s attempts to control their own reproductive futures. Reproductive freedom underwrites women’s economic independence and political; it’s vastly easier to hold down a job or participate in public life when not saddled with caring duties for which you and you alone are responsible.

Would artificial wombs, we might ask, do anything to unshackle the women of Gilead? Would the handmaid’s obsolescence also mean the handmaid’s freedom? In Atwood’s dystopia, handmaidenhood is only one of many ways in which women are bonded to servitude. The different tasks of social reproduction are doled out pin-factory style to different women: Female maids, cooks, sex workers are similarly tasked with assuring that society is sustained, fed, cared for, and, yes, reproduced. Even the wives of Gilead, living in luxurious, privileged complicity, are tasked with floor-managing the whole affair, acting as moral overseer in exchange for exemption from the toil and humiliation reserved for other castes of women.

Automating childbirth, one part of gendered labor, wouldn’t amount to abolishing all forms of gendered labor. The obsolescence of the handmaiden leaves untouched and unchallenged the lives of the sex worker and the household cook. In fact, with artificial wombs, the conspicuous labor of childbirth could be rendered invisible, mitigating one of the more overt inequities around which a broader insurrection could be organized.

Gender has shown an astonishing ability to reinvent itself according to the particular technological needs of capitalism. It has just proved too useful a tool for signposting and governing what kinds of work should be done by whom. This has even carried over to artificial intelligence. In a recent talk at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts on “Automated Emotion,” Nora Khan noted that in customer feedback surveys, companies developing artificial-intelligence services have observed that customers respond more favorably to bots to characterized as female. So accustomed are we are to women being in roles of service and gentle facilitation that anything else apparently feels alien. Hence Siri, Alexa, and Cortana rather than Simon, Alexander and Caleb.

Gender is thus used to assimilate new technologies into existing social relations and distributions of power. As academic and theorist Helen Hester explores in Technology Becomes Her, gender is coded into new technology of service to ensure that people keep on buying, keep on signing in.

Upheavals in the technology of gendered work don’t spell upheavals in the ever-adaptive technology of gender. Such advances are only revolutionary in the right circumstances. But at the same time, we should not lose sight of the opposite: that in the right circumstances, such advances are indeed revolutionary. 830 women a day die from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications. Pregnancy means running a higher risk of intimate partner violence or pure-and-simple penury. To these social ills, artificial wombs would provide a simple medical solution. They underwrite a positive politics of choice around reproduction: giving people the ability not simply to refuse childbirth, but to embrace it if they’re, say, older, or trans, or queer, or simply struggling to get pregnant.

But in a yet more revolutionary move, such technology can help undo gender, as it allows us to reorganize the work of reproduction. It defies the central logic of that Silvia Federici pinpoints as the source of restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom: that in order to reproduce itself, society needs to coerce women into squeezing out children — in the process, effectively shutting them out of public and economic life. Ectogenesis allows us to neatly outsource those concerns to the robots. Moreover, artificial wombs — hatcheries, perhaps — could be run collectively, tended by well-paid staff. The service could be delivered free at the point of need, available to people regardless of gender or family status. Biological limits tying birth to female bodies underwrite the arguments of those invested in keeping reproduction and childcare cloistered in the confines of the private, heterosexual domestic unit. Struck against the prospect of easy, widely available ectogenesis, such arguments ring hollow.

In such a world, we would have less need for the ideology of the ever-caring, endlessly self-sacrificing mother figure to regulate systems of work. No wonder then, that Huxley’s hatcheries proved so readily nightmarish for readers. They showcase technology that implies gender is not a biological fact but, as Helen Hester puts it, a workplace technology, regulating the labor of social reproduction. Allowing us to unsettle the way we organize this labor, artificial wombs lay the groundwork for that technology to become obsolete.

Eleanor Penny is a writer, editor, translator and poet. She’s an editor at Novara Media, and an associate editor at openDemocracyUK. She holds a degree in Philosophy & French from University College London.