On Ectogenesis and What it Could Mean For Society
Ectogenesis refers to the “growth of an organism in an artificial environment”, outside the body of its parent.
Recent developments and scientific research have meant that ectogenesis in humans could become a reality in a realistically close time frame, one that could have ramifications for current generations; as soon as the next 20 to 30 years.
Research has extended beyond theoretical hypothesising and macro-testing. Mammalian testing has shown positive results, which holds significant meaning for future endeavors involving humans.*
Experiments on smaller mammals have, in light of their limitations, been successful†.
The potential effects of this research are gargantuan, and could change the course of human life entirely. Several significant effects come to mind, and are significant from both feminist and scientific perspectives.
First, the mass availability of this scientific method would spell the end of ‘non-viable uteri’ ; with the creation of an artificial gestation container, the conditions provided to the foetus by the uterus and other components of the female reproductive system can be externally created and regulated. Constant mechanical monitoring will minimise intra-pregnancy risks or accidents that are simply down to sudden chance. Pregnancy losses due to accidents would be entirely negated, as would possibly any other uterine issues, foetal nutrition, placental detachment and a host of other issues those in Obstetrics and Gynaecology could explore in more significant detail.
Mechanical monitoring and constant, programmed adjustment of conditions could also be more reliable than its manual counterpart, as the aspect of human error would then have been largely removed. This would also remove the ‘biological clock’ aspect of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, although detractors may have issues with the ‘age’ at which it is ‘suitable’ to be a parent, and the limitation of the physical strain on child-rearing is a possibly significant issue.
Homosexual couples, for example, gay men who wish to conceive naturally, would no longer be dependent on surrogacy to have a child. Ova, donated either anonymously or with the consent of a loved one, could be gestated with no physical strain or dependence on a third party. This also solves several other issues related very closely to surrogacy.
Ethics and legislation surrounding surrogacy are rather nebulous, and the potential issues are enormous. A very real example relates to the surrogate, who may not be the egg donor, desiring to keep the child she has gestated. In this event, while legislation may or may not be available, dealing with the potential issue of a surrogate going rogue, or developing an attachment to the foetus, a desire to keep the child might prove difficult to deal with, an issue that has occurred in the past.
Surrogacy and the selection of a surrogate mother is an arduous, tenuous process inundated with extensive paperwork, which leads several people to seek surrogate mothers in countries where legislation is more lax and human life more abundant, and, consequently, less valuable in terms of legislation. Women from these countries, including India and Thailand among others, are paid money to be surrogates. Human life is commodified, these specific lives reduced to wombs-for-hire, and several of the women in these countries are trafficked, leased out as ‘wombs-for-hire’, receiving a negligible chunk of the sum paid to their ‘lessors’ for those with access to funds, reduced, as it were, to characters from a dystopian world straight out of the mind of Margaret Atwood.
The existence of external wombs would pare down significantly the quest for ‘wombs for hire’, although this could be over a longer time frame because the technology will be expensive in its nascence and not entirely widely accessible to begin with. However, it could help combat a significant social evil.
The possibility of extra-body gestation also opens up several avenues for women who wish to have children in view of their careers. Pregnancy would no longer be a physically taxing stretch of life that forms an encumbrance on work, physical activity or any other task a woman wishes to undertake, and no longer cause a pregnant pause in careers, which could then progress as normal as they do for men. This could result in a move towards more equanimous parenting, beginning to break patriarchy-imposed barriers which are ‘reinforced’ using ‘nature’ and ‘biology’ as excuses for inequality. Women would no longer be necessitated, forced to stay exclusively within or around their homes, as further and further excuses for the justification of gender inequality are eradicated.
This scientific development could have the potential to help break glass ceilings.
The effects of body issues, dysmorphia and changes are significant, even on non-pregnant women, and entire industries function off these aggressively marketed, purely appearance-based products. This could put an end to the significant medical and physical effects of pregnancy on a woman’s body, therefore affecting neither her physical health nor her mental health, by way of impacting her body image.
However, is the philosophical issue largely surrounding the ideal that childbirth is attributed saintlike, magical qualities even though it is merely a biological process common to every mammal in existence? It is not ‘sacred’ in any form of the word; this is merely a human endeavour to make fantastical that which is not.
The oft-repeated ‘wisdom’ of the patriarchy, in order to cause the virtual imprisonment of the female within the home, has been, across geographies and socio-economic strata, the avowal of the basic reproductive differences between the sexes, the need for the mother to be the ‘primary provider’ simply because ‘science’ or ‘biology’ dictated it. That the woman was meant to be the bearer of children for the family she married into, which continues to be the widely, nay, primarily held belief in several developing and developed countries. The familial and societal pressures in these countries cause a Handmaiden’s Tale-esque scenario, with an actual alienation in the minds of the women who go through these experiences between their bodily choices and the decisions they are forced to take, the societal pressures to have a child that one may not necessarily desire.
While these scientific developments may blur some ethical lines, they elucidate and outline far more clearly some others that could help science, legislation, the structure of society and the human race at large, in a multitude of ways, although they may bring with them some potential issues that will need to be discussed and examined in far greater detail.
The termination of pregnancy and related issues would need to be analysed. Although ectogenesis, as a deliberate scientific process, is entirely intentional, the potential for the desire to terminate the pregnancy is entirely possible.
Considering Roe v. Wade is based on the ‘viability of the foetus outside the mother’s womb’ to adjudge the potential for termination of pregnancy, this issue would need to be explored in greater detail in the future, as a foetus potentially growing in a ‘pod’ is entirely viable ‘outside the mother’s womb’.
If ectogenesis becomes a reality, science will dictate a new reality, one that, to me, heralds positivity in terms of biology and sexual equality. Pregnancies would be easier, safer for both foetus and mother, and natural childbirth more accessible across society.
Women need not be primary caretakers anymore, and the reality of ‘househusbands’ that John Lennon imagined, of men being the principal caretakers of their children, taking over more traditionally ‘female’ home duties’, or becoming ‘mothers’ in the historical sense of the term as they take over the majority of caring for their children, a task previously relegated automatically to women, irrespective of career, choice or personal desire.
Our world is changing every day, from the bottom up, and should ectogenesis become a reality, the dichotomy of a gender-based societal division of roles would cease to exist, or at the very least pare itself down on a long enough time frame. These roles would affect significantly patriarchal societies that consider women mere tools for reproduction, should human ectogenesis become a reality, the kind that is widely available to those who wish to use it.
As of now, external wombs are still experimental, so until further study and work, the term ‘Human Ectogenesis’ is up for grabs. Perhaps a collaboration among Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler and Phil Collins?
*Japanese professor Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara of Juntendo University has successfully gestated goat embryos in a machine that holds amniotic fluid in tanks.
† Over a decade ago, Dr. Helen Hung-Ching Liu, Director of the Reproductive Endocrine Laboratory at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell University, engineered mouse endometrial tissue (the tissue that forms mammalian uterine lining) to an extra-uterine framework or ‘scaffold’, as described in her research, successfully growing a mouse embryo to term.
Although human trials are not permitted for ethical and philosophical reasons, Dr. Liu grew a human embryo for 10 days in an artificial womb, with the goal of developing, someday, an external womb. Legislation, however, permits a fourteen day cap on this sort of research.
It’s Mother’s Day in the States, India (and, I’m assuming, in a lot of other countries around the world).
It’s also one of the many hundred million Hallmark-manufactured, made-by-conglomerate days celebrated all over the world. In honour of the, um, auspicious occasion, I thought I’d explore why people HAVE children to begin with.
As someone who does not have children, and does not intend to at any point in the distant future, [mostly because I think a child requires a sane, stable parent, neither of which I am] I chose to explore this because I can be objective about it.
I’ve always wondered why people have kids at all. I came up with a few reasons:
1) It’s an accident (married, not married, together, broken up, whatever the status of their relationship may be)
2) They feel like it’s a social obligation – this could be many, many things or a permutation or combination of several, like
a) Reaching a certain age
b) Being with their partner for a certain amount of time
c) Being married for a certain amount of time
d) People that won’t stop chiming in with their tuppence worth
3) They want something in their image – which is also rather connected to wanting to pass on their genetic material, which is more or less a natural biological drive in humans, primates, and most of the animal kingdom.
Now primates and the rest of the animal kingdom, I can understand. But humans are, believe it or not, equipped with more advanced cognitive facilities, ones that enable them to mentally reason out scientific, logical reasons for wanting to have a child, reasons that go beyond not wrapping it before tapping it, or wanting a little munchkin that looks like them.
Here in our happy human world, we have tests for everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. There are tests for college, high school, even PREschool, to drive, for musical proficiency, intelligence, writing, reading, even ones to test your mental and/or physical resilience. They have gun tests for cops, and even civilians who want to own firearms (in most places) so they don’t endanger innocent lives, and they can be traced if they try.
There is, however, no ‘test’ to see if people are fit to be parents. Now obviously that is a bit of whimsy on my part, seeing as nearly everybody who chooses to have a kid possesses one sort of genitals or the other, and it’s not like a third party could control that. Admittedly, that would also be rather big-brother like, and totalitarianism is not something I’ve ever been even remotely fond of.
Still, with people reproducing like rabbits seemingly in the absence of coherent thought, some sort of regulation would be nice. I don’t mean ‘breeding’ kids with what may seem like ‘higher cognitive processes’ or something like that. No, I am not a squat, terrifying, anti-Semitic, tyrannical little despot with a toothbrush moustache who massacres innocents.
I do, however, sort of agree with Friedrich Nietzsche‘s ideal of the Übermensch, an ideal he wrote about in Also Sprach Zarathustra. My view of Der Übermensch, however, is not even remotely racial, but more related to eugenics and culture than anything else.
[Incidentally, those two are related – I read an article in the paper not two days ago that I shall try to link to if I find it.]
Basically, certain cultures affect the genetic makeup of the people that constitute them- the example the article mentioned was that the culture loved milk, so to speak. As they ingested a larger quantity of milk and dairy, their genetic evolution was affected by their cultural evolution, and probably vice-versa. (A quick Google search tells me this is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, or gene-culture coevolution.)
Eugenics is not really the same, as DIT has to do with natural selection, which is, self-explanatorily, natural, but has similar effects. They are different in that eugenics is a conscious scientific effort to improve the quality of life. So it’s selection all right, just not completely natural.
An aside to those of you who find eugenics interesting – I’d suggest you begin with an extremely interesting documentary I saw on the BBC, on HardTalk – Stephen Sackur interviews Sir Mark Walport, a former Head of Division of Medicine at Imperial, and a eugenicist. For anybody in the UK, you can watch this here. For the rest of you, however, if you didn’t catch it on the telly, the only way to get access to it is to download it, here.
It’s more to do with healthcare-related eugenics, but raises some very pertinent ethical questions that would be relevant either way.
Anyway, back to what I was originally talking about. Children. Like I said, much as I, and millions of others, hate control and interference (and it’s there, notwithstanding), I’ve found myself thinking it would be nice if there were some way to check what kind of people reproduced, and what kind didn’t. While this would, ultimately, affect society, I mean it on a more grassroots, basic level – sure, intelligence would be nice, but in my opinion parents should be able to provide the child a home; by a home, I am not referring exclusively to a solid, sturdy roof over their heads, financial security and an education and discipline (if you, however, believe in corporal punishment, I would like to have an angry, angry word with you), but unconditional love (again, and some might disagree, I don’t think humans are fully capable of unconditional love towards other human beings, maybe the conditions aren’t very visible. That isn’t to say I don’t love people/ am not loved by people who know me inside out. All the good stuff and all the not-so-good stuff).
With unconditional love should come emotional security, and some sort of shelter or haven. The knowledge that no matter how awful the outside world is, how terrifying and absolutely huge and daunting it may be, how full of monsters, there’s still that one place they can take refuge in, the one place they can feel absolutely, completely emotionally secure, and grow up with self-esteem decent enough to help them function and be safe.
In fact, that, to me, takes precedence over most of the other things – except an education, which could help a child absorb all those ideals in SOME form, or, barring that, at least be strong enough mentally and/or intellectually to function in their absence, which might not be the same thing, but can be good enough for human function to proceed normally and be a prosocial member of society. Karl Menninger once said “what’s done to children, they will do to society.”
So education, while of paramount importance all on its own, is a defense mechanism for society. Much like the oxygen masks you find on commercial airliners.
In the event of a drop in emotional security, your education will drop automatically from ceiling panels. Remain in your seat, reach up firmly and pull on the mask to activate the flow of common sense and intellect. Secure the elastic band around your head, place the mask over your nose and mouth, and breathe normally. Secure your own mask before helping children or other passengers.
See how universal stuff like that is?
That is one of the main reasons I place intellect and education higher up on the scale than emotional welfare – the stronger it is, the better a person’s backup mechanism, and the easier it is for them to function in the real outside world, filled with big bad creepies and crawlies, where mum and dad and the nightlight can’t save you from the boogeyman.
So do I wish there were some sort of marker or checkpoint to test WHY parents have their children.
While I haven’t been one (a parent, not a child, which I still am in many, many ways, and do not ever plan to be one), I firmly believe a child should be brought into an environment where it is wanted, loved, and cared for, and not just with toys, and as they grow up, expensive cars and everything money can buy. A child shouldn’t be brought into the world just so you can continue your ‘family name’ – something that happens in so many societies that believe in trying desparately, no matter how many other children they have, to have a son.
It may seem like a cheesy, corny, overdone one, but the parent:child : : potter:pot (no, not cannabis) analogy is true. A child is an impressionable, tiny, clayey little sponge that soaks up whatever is around it and is shaped by it, too. Whether you think you’re displaying them or not, your reasons for having a kid, if they are selfish, will ultimately show up subconsciously. (That isn’t me talking, but every psychologist, ever. Attitudes, even if they are not overtly displayed, manifest themselves subconsciously anyway.)
I am a strong, strong advocate of adoption. I’m sure there are biological parents who love and want their children just as much, and I’m aware of the fact that many people (not all of them, as I personally know exceptions to this rule) look to adoption as a last resort, only if normal conception, IVF and surrogacy have all failed, or they do not have access to them.
With adoption, though, I think there’s this sort of longing or want to actually take care of a child, rather than just pass on genetic material (proving my point that humans are capable of differentiating between the two), and that actual desire to want a child for the child and not just for oneself, or like a glorified bipedal pet,makes a world of difference.
There may be no ‘right’ way to bring up a child (barring the obvious: keeping it away from drugs, drink, out of danger, stuff like that), but loving it and just being there certainly is the best way to start.
The desire to take care of something and the ability to love it no matter what, is what makes a parent; not just fully functional gonads and genitals.
For those of you who have ever watched M*A*S*H, I agree with Colonel Potter:
Having babies is fun, but babies grow up into people.
I’d like to end this post with TWO songs instead of my usual one. Both of them by the same man, both beautiful, but both about very, very different perspectives. If you haven’t heard them, please, listen to both.