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UK Ethicist Says Women Would Be Better Off if Babies Grew in Artificial Wombs

By ceridwen |

True liberation or misogynist fantasy?

An ethicist in the UK reckons women will never truly be equal with men until babies can be gestated in artificial wombs.

Dr. Anna Smajdor, writing in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, tells us that pregnancy causes a “natural inequality” between the sexes. Men get the perks of reproduction but women bear all the “burdens and risks.”

“Pregnancy is a condition that causes pain and suffering, and that affects only women,” she writes. Smajdor is Lecturer in Ethics at the School of Medicine, Health Policy and Practice in the University of East Anglia.
So, in order to be equal to men, a woman must become more like a man? His body is the norm? Hers is the handicap? I find this horrifying.

It sounds like a Brave New World or maybe the dystopian novel,  The Handmaid’s Tale, in which slave women gestate so the ruling class women don’t have to be bothered with it.

But it’s not a particularly new idea if you think about.

Feminists have made this point before, in other ways. The fight for equal rights in the US had lots to do with showing how women could do what men can do. And while that was so important–give us the vote, hello?!– the question of how to fit reproduction/motherhood into this paradigm was always, to say the least, an awkward one. Maybe techo-wombs would have been a bigger part of earlier feminist agendas had the idea seemed even remotely possible.

Not that we’re in anywhere near close to being able to accomplish ectogenesis now but I suppose given recent advances in reproductive technologies, it seems more possible than it did in the time of, say, Simone de Beauvoir, who famously said, “woman is womb.” (And didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment.)

I don’t think humans will ever be able to grow in artificial wombs. A mathematician recently explained in his TED talk on gestation: “The magic of the mechanisms inside each genetic structure saying exactly where that nerve cell should go– the complexity of these, the mathematical models of how these things are indeed done are beyond human comprehension. Even though I’m a mathematician, I look at this with a marvel of how did these instruction sets not make mistakes as they build what is us. It’s a mystery, its magic, its divinity.”  (And to think this process is our ‘burden’?!)

But here’s the thing:

The conversation about the “burden” of child-bearing cannot be reduced to biology. It’s about things like access to healthcare and clean water and real food; it’s about girls not being raped and getting fistula as a consequence; it’s about maternity and paternity care benefits, affordable childcare… An artificial womb is not going to save a mother in Afghanistan from her “burden.”

It’s also bizarre to me that we’re led to this place of duking it out over what’s fair biologically. Men die before women. Do we need to make that fair too? Shoot women at 80 to even it out?

Smajdor worries that women are “baby carriers who must subjugate their other interests to the well-being of their children,” but is an artificial womb going to change that?? Once you get your baby from the factory, what are you going to do then? That’s where the real “subjugate their interests” part kicks in. And once again we come back to social/political NOT biological issues.

Though this is a lofty philosophical question, a dumb but kind of genius Bruce Willis quote comes to mind, “On the one hand, we’ll never experience childbirth. On the other hand, we can open all our own jars.”

There are differences between men and women. We need to make sure that those differences are not reason for exploitation of one sex by the other, not attempt to just make them go away!

What do you think?

Would women really be better off if machines had all the babies?

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About ceridwen



Ceridwen Morris is a writer, mother, and certified childbirth educator. She is the author of several books and screenplays, including (Three Rivers; 2007). She serves on the board of The Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York and teaches at Tribeca Parenting in New York City. Read bio and latest posts → Read Ceridwen's latest posts →

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18 thoughts on “UK Ethicist Says Women Would Be Better Off if Babies Grew in Artificial Wombs

  1. Hannah says:

    I think you nailed every flaw in her logic. Well done.

  2. ariela says:

    This is absolutely ridiculous! I agree with all your points, and would add that it’s a supremely anti-feminist thing to suggest since what she’s basically saying is that the one thing that women do still have power over in our patriarchal society (the power to create new life) should be taken away from them! I’m going to guess that this woman doesn’t have any children….either that or she had such a horrible experience being pregnant that she doesn’t understand that many of us actually enjoy it!
    I’m certainly enjoying my pregnancy, even though it has had its ups and downs.

  3. Blue says:

    Jeez. And to think that I actually like being pregnant and feel just a tiny bit sorry for my husband that he won’t ever feel a baby move inside him…

    Also, totally agree with the paragraph about the real problems being rape, violence, fistula, lack of obstetric care…

  4. Richan says:

    I’d put mine in an artificial womb if they could ever make one. But not because I agree with this lady, becauseI’ve had hypermesis gravidarum with both my pregnancies and its absolutely horrible.

    Also, in the Handmaidens Tale, the civilization was dealing with extreme infertility and when a wife couldn’t have children they’d get a hand maiden proven to be fertile to bear them a child. The wife tended to hate it too. The book is a really good read :) the civilization is an extremist oppressive christian nation with a lot of strange laws.

  5. Jackie says:

    I think the ethicist raises an interesting point. I do kind of agree that as long as woman are the ones having babies, women will have a bit of a glass ceiling. However, creating artificial wombs will not solve this because it does not necessarily extinguish the biological commitment women have towards their babies. I believe women in general are hardwired to be more selfless when it comes to their children by making career sacrifices.

    In Canada we have one year maternity/parental leave. While this is the most fabulous thing ever, there are repercussions. Depending on the type of career you have, taking a significant amount of time out of the workplace puts you behind others when it comes to promotions. There’s no way around this. Women are also more likely to choose job share arrangements and work part-time after having children. Again, this impacts the ability for women to become CEO’s and high level executives. You don’t see men very often taking signicant parental leave or choosing job shares or working part-time for the family.

    My friends and I talk endlessly about the fallacy of women being able to have it all. It is a rare woman who can be a sucessful CEO or executive and be a sucessful parent to young children. Its all about priorities and I think most women often choose their families at the expense of their careers.

  6. R says:

    God designed men and women to be different for a reason. We are not equal, we never will be. Period. We have different roles in marriage, family raising, society, etc… When those roles get muddied, that’s when problems are created and failures begin. We should be celebrating our differences, not trying to equalize them….ESPECIALLY the biological ones! I do NOT want to grow a beard, have a penis, giant muscles, or get male-pattern baldness!!! Nor do I want my husband to grow a vagina, gestate our babies, start lactating or have high levels of estrogen. I like the way God designed us. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Dr. Anna Smajdor clearly has a bad case of penis envy.

  7. wren says:

    Richan: I don’t believe there is anything “Christian” about Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. Borrowing religious symbolism does not make a Christian nation. It’s akin to saying that wearing black makes one a “Goth,” or eating a lunch of vegetables labels you as a “Vegetarian.”

  8. Richan says:

    @ wren: the goverment in the book is a totalitarian christian theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead led by a group known as the Sons of Jacob who took over the united states. The society is compulsorily christian and the strict laws atte founded upon the biblical old testament.

  9. Erin Human says:

    What a crock. This idea takes for granted the assumption that a patriarchal structure should rule the world. Of course women will remain unequal if we continue to insist that our cultures be structured to privilege the sex that doesn’t get pregnant… honestly, this is too stupid to even seriously argue. This ignoramus seems to be unaware that there have been matriarchal societies in the history of the world and that women don’t have to be as man-like as possible to be equal or even be the dominant sex (in some cultures).

  10. j g says:

    thats nuts even with the pain and suffering…and puking i loved being pregnant and feeling my daughter growing in my belly and would do it again in a heartbeat!

  11. jamee says:

    wow seriously…. The only burden I ever had about child birth was every one acting like it was a “condition” or “handicap.” And of course his sperm donor was quite the burden as well. I think that this I’d just ridiculous! Child birth is a beautiful thing! I would never have my baby formed in a factory. That it’s sweet precious time while being pregnant. I don’t care what kind of ecogenesis technology ever comes from this. I don’t think it will ever be able to replace a mothers love and nurturing of a fetus

  12. Tia says:

    I’m upset at the topic of pregnancy being a ‘condition’ that is burdensome on women because of the pain and suffering…Yes, there’s pain, discomforts, and the like, but would you give up the joys of feeling that life grow and move inside of you just to change that? It makes it sound like pregnancy is a disease instead of the wonderful miracle that’s to be respected instead of looked down upon. Men and women were created different for a reason. It’s not about who’s better or worse. We each have our strengths and weaknesses that are meant to work together.

  13. Sheree says:

    R, I could not have said it better myself! God’s plan was perfect!

  14. Jenni says:

    I always thought being able to grow children made me better than my husband. Whatever, I’ll call it like it is, I was better. (I mean, I still am)
    Healthcare ethics? Doesn’t she understand that it takes a lot to make a baby in the womb, not just the nutrients.
    And, I open my own jars, Bruce willis! :)

  15. Debbie says:

    I think it is really more like “men will never be equal to women until babiies can be grown in artificial wombs”. At first I thought it was a man ethicist, because if a woman is interested in be equal to a man and wants children, they can have children and she can make it clear to her mate what is expected and use formula. In the grand scheme of a womans life and career, 9 months of pregnancy and how ever much maternity time up to 3 months that she wants is a drop in the bucket. I personally am not interested in being equal with any man, I concider the act of knitting together a new life with my very body to be the hallmark of superiority over men (not that I’m interested in being superior to men, it’s just fact). With todays medical advancement, there is little risk for a woman who responsibly chooses to bear children when her body is young enough to properly knit and gestate them and also takes care of herself for such purposes if that is what she desires in life (men have to take care of themselves if they intend to reproduce too, btw). I find this ladies statements insulting to all woman (just a note: I am far from being a feminist nor do I think woman are superior to men other than in their ability to gestate and birth children).

  16. Colleen says:

    While I can see some of her points (I lost my job due to my pregnancy, and did two of my friends), I never would have traded being pregnant for anything! I loved having my little one inside of me do much that I wanted to do surrogacy, but got turned down because my baby was a preemie. I don’t think women would have that special bond with their children if they were grown in artificial wombs! And then how would the average person start a family?! Surely only the rich would be able to afford this.

  17. autum says:

    when men can have babys too, then they will be equal. until them women are superior because we make life

  18. Relish says:

    This can’t be serious. I am a feminist. I also a mother of three beautiful girls. Being a woman is nothing to be ashamed of. We ARE different biologically, we just are. And some of us enjoy the differences, we don’t aspire to be men. Pregnancy is not a disease, it is not a burden. It IS a gift and a privilege and an honour. I for one wish that people would stop putting down being a girl/woman. It is ok to be female, why are we raising our girls to believe that being a boy is superior? Why are we teaching them that’s it’s not ok to be who you are? Some boys like dolls, some girls line dirt, it’s ok to be a girl. We are who we are and I believe that men get the raw deal by not being able to gestate. That doesn’t make them not equal parents. Until we give them permission to take time off work and to be equal parents, women will not be able to break the glass ceiling and men too will continue to miss out. Nobody wins at the moment, both sexes could do with more fairness but artificial wombs, really?

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