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The Potential Mediating Role of the Artificial Womb

On May 6th, I published a post about the artificial womb and its potential role for promoting gender justice. I keep thinking about this technology, and since there is more and more ethical discussion about it, I want to address it again, this time from the point of view of mediation theory and in an attempt to anticipate the potential mediating role of this technology. According to mediation theory, technology mediates how humans perceive and act in the world. The Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek has extended this post-phenomenological approach, which has been developed by Don Ihde, to the realm of ethics. Verbeek sees technology as being intrinsically involved in moral decision-making. Technology mediates our moral perceptions and actions. Moral agency is not something exclusively human, but a “hybrid affair”. Moral actions and decisions “take place in complex and intricate connections between humans and things”. Verbeek illustrates technology’s mediating role by means of the example of obstetric ultrasound. I shall apply the idea of the technological mediation of morality to the artificial womb and discuss some ways in which that technology could play a mediating role in morality.

Let us look at Verbeek’s example of obstetric ultrasound first. Verbeek argues convincingly that this technology does not provide a neutral window to the womb, but helps to constitute what the child is for its parents and what the parents are in relation to the child. Obstetric ultrasound constitutes the foetus as a person and as a patient. It does the former by presenting the foetus as bigger than it actually is, by presenting it as isolated from its mother and by gendering it. The isolation creates a new relation between the unborn and its mother. The mother is increasingly seen as the (hostile) environment in which the unborn is living, rather than forming a unity with it. The technology constitutes the foetus as a patient by letting it be present in terms of medical variables. An important goal of ultrasound is the detection of abnormalities. Ultrasound “translates ‘congenital defects’ into preventable forms of suffering”. Most importantly, the technology constitutes expecting parents as decision-makers regarding the life of their unborn child. (Note that prenatal screening has advanced significantly since Verbeek wrote this.)

Now imagine that it was possible to transfer a human foetus to an artificial womb and that it were an option for parents to delegate the gestation process of their child to that technology. How might the artificial womb mediate moral perception and action in such a scenario? Elizabeth Romanis suggests that the artificial womb would constitute a new product of human reproduction, which she calls “gestateling”. The term refers to a human being in the process of ex utero gestation exercising no independent capacity for life. The artificial womb would constitute the unborn as an independent entity in a more radical way than ultrasound did. A “gestateling” would actually exist independently of its mother. The technology would not only present it as isolated, but also in fact isolate it from the body of the mother. Some women look at this scenario with horror: “My first association [with an artificial womb] is alienation, there is no attachment between the mother and child, it is like orphanhood …”

Like ultrasound, the artificial womb would constitute the unborn not only as a person, but also as a patient, and it would also do this in a more radical way. As Janice Raymond observes, “even when the fetus is still in the [natural] womb, doctors often become police officers of the pregnancy [… ] If the fetus becomes the primary ‘patient’ while still in the womb, how much more so when it is detached from the woman’s body in procedures where fetuses can be grown, frozen, and thawed technologically”. The artificial womb would create new relations (between the unborn and its mother, its father, doctors, etc.). It would dramatically change the practices of abortion, adoption, foetal monitoring, parenting, and so forth. It would create new moral obligations, such as an obligation of doctors to transfer the foetuses of women who want to terminate a pregnancy to an artificial womb instead of aborting them. It would disrupt current gender roles, the roles of mothers and fathers, the role of pregnancy and motherhood, etc. Referring to Anca’s post from 4 November, perhaps the artificial womb would facilitate multi-parenting. It is important to try to anticipate the ways in which the artificial womb will mediate moral perception and action, and to actively engage in shaping its mediating role. According to Verbeek, freedom lies in our (limited) ability to shape the ways in which our perceptions and actions, and our own subjectivity, are technologically mediated.

I am an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Previously I have held research and teaching positions at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, Maastricht University, Utrecht University and Eindhoven University of Technology. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.


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