Livia Arndal Woods //
The possibility of divorcing reproduction from the maternal body fascinates and haunts the human imagination. The dangers of and desire for such separation – for ectogenesis – has been of particular interest in science fiction. Indeed, the oxforddictionaries.com definition of ectogenesis reads: “(chiefly in science fiction) the development of embryos in artificial conditions outside the uterus.” Examples of ectogenic visions in science fiction are so myriad as to make naming them almost unnecessary. Still, think of Frankenstein, of Brave New World, of the implications of Never Let Me Go, et cetera. These stories teach us how to think about wild leaps in reproductive technology from a critical remove.
But the viability of the ectogenesis dictionary definition’s “chiefly in science fiction” parenthetical is slipping. As Claire Horn recently wrote for LARB’s Avidly:
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.
Horn’s piece reads these developments in conversation with Shulamith Firestone’s 1970’s utopian vision of gender undone by the undoing of embodied reproductive necessities and the dystopian edge such technological undoing would be likely to have, in practice, for “women of color, queer and trans women, [and] immigrant women.”
This is certainly a pressing angle on the radical developments in reproductive technologies the last half-century has seen, especially in light of recent clarity about the scope and severity of infant and maternal mortality rates among black Americans. One does not need a Brave New World-ian hatchery come to life to see that unprecedented advances in our abilities to control reproduction are capable of effecting oppression along the fault lines of privilege. The drive for such control is motivated by the primal dangers and desires of maternal bodies and the society they exceed and by which they are contained. The dangers of conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period seem inextricable from the desire to control them. Addressing that desire for some seems to heighten the danger for others – or at least make explicit their abandonment to that danger. The increasingly real possibility that ectogenesis will play a part in human reproduction in the course of this century demands that we ask the questions in which science fiction has instructed us: what will be the cost of our desire to know and control? Who will pay it? Toward what future do we move? These questions are not part of any hypothetical analyses of our visions and fears. These are immediate ethical concerns about our bodies and communities.
The photograph that heads this post depicts a “Representative lamb cannulated at 107 days of gestation and on day 4 of support” in the 2017 report on “An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb.” Donna Haraway’s 1984 “A Cyborg Manifesto” sees emancipatory potential in the kind of half animal, half machine this photo literalizes. For Haraway, such a cyborg future might offer viable alternatives to, for example, the failures of feminist “sisterhood” to account for the needs and experiences of all people classified as women. So, though reproductive technologies tend not to benefit, for example, black women and babies in America at a rate comparable to the benefits afforded white women and babies, such dystopian dynamics are not the only ones we can imagine for the possibilities of machines in our lives. Indeed, the promise of science, medicine, machinery, and technology is almost always a progressive, utopian promise. We cannot ethically move toward a future increasingly shaped by such forces without maintaining room for the expression of desire for equity, improvement, and meaning in technological worlds. The dangers do seem easier to identify and articulate, though…
I close this little meditation by turning toward Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, (which Josh Franklin recently began responding to here). In Natural Causes, Ehrenreich – whose early work included influential feminist interrogations of the effects of modern medicalization on women’s epistemologies and ontologies – issues a cri de coeur of resistance to the desire for control over life and death. Exploring her rejection of on-going medical care as she ages, she tears a little haphazardly into both the medical and “wellness” rituals aimed at prolonging individual lives at the cost of fostering communities of mutual care. Though Natural Causes is in profound conversation with female embodiment, it is not centrally concerned with the dangers that stalk our reproductive years but rather with an acceptance of the inevitability of death at the end of long lives. Nonetheless, Ehrenreich continues to offer ways of contextualizing the emerging reproductive realities that science fiction has both framed for and distanced from our progressive imaginations.
Featured Image from Partridge, E., Davey, M., Hornick, M. et al. An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb. Nat Commun 8, 15112 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms15112. Article, figures, and images licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Image cropped to emphasize the “representative lamb cannulated at 107 days of gestation and on day 4 of support”