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More Gender Justice Through the Artificial Womb?

In 2017, US-scientists succeeded in transferring lamb foetuses to what comes very close to an artificial womb: a “biobag”. All of the lambs emerged from the biobag healthy. The scientists believe that about two years from now it will be possible to transfer preterm human babies to an artificial womb, in which they have greater chances to survive and develop without a handicap than in current neonatal intensive care. At this point in time, developers of the technology, such as Guid Oei, gynaecologist and professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, see the technology as a possible solution to the problem of neonatal mortality and disability due to preterm birth. They do not envisage uses of it that go far beyond that. Philosophers and ethicists, however, have started thinking about the use of artificial womb technology for very different purposes, such as being able to terminate a risky pregnancy without having to kill the foetus, or strengthening the freedom of women. If we consider such further going uses, new ethical issues arise, including whether artificial womb technology could promote gender justice. Should we embrace this technology as a means towards greater equality between men and women?

Let us imagine that it was possible to use the artificial womb for the whole gestation process. That women, or parents, had the choice between “pregnancy as usual” and delegating gestation to the artificial womb. Such use of the technology might never be possible, and it certainly will not be possible in the nearer future, yet I take it to be realistic enough to reflect upon its potential effects on gender justice. In order to answer the question, we first need to clarify which pregnancy-related differences and inequalities between women and men are problems of justice. In the absence of a technology that could replace the female womb, the fact that women, unlike men, have to go through the process of pregnancy and giving birth if they want to have biological children, is not an instance of injustice. It is a simple biological fact. This does not hold for the negative social consequences of this biological inequality, such as lower chances of women on the labour market, greater difficulties for women to combine family and career, the social expectation that women sacrifice more for their children than men, and so on. Could the artificial womb lead to a reduction or eradication of these consequences, thus contributing to the realisation of greater gender justice?

If women were to have the choice as to whether they wanted to be pregnant or delegate the gestation process to an artificial womb, this would enhance their freedom. Furthermore, if it were not anymore “naturally” the mother who had to be pregnant and give birth, this would remove support for the widespread view that it is also “naturally” the mother who is most important for a child in its first years, and therefore the main caregiver. The choice between being pregnant and using an artificial womb could bring with it a new division of roles between mothers and fathers. Once the baby was “born” from the artificial womb, it would have to be taken care of just like babies born in a conventional way. But why should this task fall mainly on the mother, rather than on the father? Unless the mother wanted (and were able) to breastfeed, there would be no reason to treat mothers and fathers unequally in this regard. Therefore, it is imaginable that men would come to be as involved in parenting as women, with the effect that employers would have no reason to favour a male applicant over a female applicant on the basis of the fear that the woman could want to become a mother.

Is such a scenario desirable? This depends on how the practice of delegating the gestation process to an artificial womb would affect the development of the foetus, the psychological development of the child, the emotional attachment between parents and child, the parent-child relationship more generally, the experience of parenthood, etc. If the effects of this use of the artificial womb were anticipated to be largely negative, or if this use were likely to transform our practices, experiences and relationships in ways that we would ultimately deem undesirable, it would be better to choose other means for enhancing gender justice.

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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