The Personalist Project

Well, I hate to draw attention to articles like this one  by Eleanor Robertson about  the coming normalization of artificial wombs. It's useful, though, to illustrate what happens when your ideas of women, men, the body, the family and biology itself get unmoored from reality as given and pasted back together in a macabre game of mix-and-match.

The first thing that struck me about this 22-paragraph look at machine-grown children was the absence of any concern for the children themselves. Then again, since the author is focused on how removing the fetus from its mother's body alive will transform the debate, I guess any reservations about the baby's welfare could be countered with "What, you'd rather we end its life?"

(This is a familiar theme for children conceived by anonymous donors: any possible protest of theirs is thought to be trumped by an appeal to the gratitude they ought to feel for existing at all. For a glimpse into the unintended consequences such conception creates, see "Anonymous Us," where donor-conceived children share their stories.)

One commenter on Robertson's article expressed doubts about the emotional effects on the child, but she was shouted down by somebody else who dismissed the idea of a fetus feeling complex emotions (she seemed to consider this a refutation). Another commenter, oblivious of physiology, declared that surely an artificial womb must be an improvement on being trapped in the uterus for nine months and then exiting through the birth canal. Many others were skeptical about the process becoming standard or affordable anytime soon and called the whole conversation premature. I hope they're right.

The author is rightly concerned that the idea of ectogenesis "raises the prospect of new forms of surveillance, control and coercion." As she points out,

...economic rationalisation and technological innovation have transformed and corroded institutions like the nuclear family, the school and the church in the pursuit of economic growth.

Why shouldn't these forces continue to do the same to the bodies of women? Artificial wombs might be just the sort of tool that would allow the state and the market to completely subsume one of the most sacred human activities into the logic of efficiency, without the messy mum-bo-be part getting in the way.

So she worries: governments, employers and market forces might coerce women into outsourcing gestation--or might prevent those who want babies without pregnancy and birth from achieving that. And she sees that the "my body, my choice" argument for abortion becomes obsolete if the baby no longer need be inside its mother's body:

Our most accepted rationale for abortion rests on the pregnant person’s right to control over her own body – what we call bodily autonomy. So what happens when it’s possible to extract a foetus from a uterus without killing it, and place it in the WombPro9000 for the remaining gestational period?

I give her credit for not flinching from the word killing, anyway.

As distasteful as the prospect of such coercion is, it's no more disturbing that what she sees as advantages. For one thing, she suggests,

Not having to contend with the biological limitations of ordinary pregnancy would be a gift to those suffering from infertility, gay men, trans women, and many other groups whose longing for children is circumscribed to varying extents. Our cultural understanding of family grows ever more inclusive, and access to reproductive technology could play a large role in supporting that pluralism.

It sure could.

Whose longing is circumscribed--that's the key right there. It's not so much that we object to having to "contend with" this or that "biological limitation."  Some desire pregnancy; others would rather avoid it or, as the euphemism has it, interrupt it. Some want to "identify as" a man, some as a woman. Some prefer to remain noncommittal. 

But what we chafe at most of all is being "circumscribed" by reality itself. Male and female are 'the given," and we're no longer content with gaining approval for this or that contradiction of reality as given; what we're really after is abolishing givenness altogether. It's American can-do-ism run amok. We will not serve. It's not so much that we're unwilling to serve a personal Supreme Being--though it comes to the same thing. It's more that we don't want to bow to being, or reality, at all.

What reality has joined, we keep finding ways to put asunder. We decoupled the marriage act from marriage, and from procreation, too.  First we wanted union without procreation, and then we set our sights on procreation without union.  Once we figured out babies without procreation, we moved on to motherhood without pregnancy. This is deconstruction, not as a literary game, but as a literal pastime. 

What we tear apart can't always be pasted together again, no matter how high-tech our game of mix-and-match becomes.

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