Eggs were first. Millions of years before mammals, eggs existed, their hard shells protecting the incubating embryo inside. Egg Mom wanders mobile, light in her anatomy—unlike her mammalian sister that waddles around, heavily crippled with the burden of her womb. Eggs were an evolutionary smart idea.
According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2011? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 12 articles that we published this year, based on how many total hits each one received.
The following piece was first published here on May 26, and is the #12 most viewed of the year.
In February at the Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga crawled out of an artificial womb to sing her hit, “Born This Way.” Synthetic uteri have been featured in numerous books and films, from Brave New World to Avatar. We believe eggs are destined to return, to hatch our young, and that we will embrace them.
Humanity inevitably will return to the egg via “artificial wombs” that allow women the same gestating liberty as birds in the air. Critics of “ectogenesis” abound, but we’re convinced of its advantages. Synthetic uteri will spawn exciting freedoms for both genders. Here’s how:
Maternal Health & Safety
Feminist Shulamith Firestone famously spoke out against pregnancy in the 1970s, calling it “barbaric.” She deplored the “deformation of the body” that gestation created, leading to childbirth that “hurts and isn’t good for you.” Though Firestone’s views on pregnancy were at times extreme, the negative side effects of pregnancy, which include nausea, vomiting, weight gain of up to 40+ pounds, fatigue and pain, with a torturous pushing culmination that can leave the mother dead, wounded with a c-section, with pelvic floor injuries, postpartum hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia, hospital infections, or post-traumatic stress disorder, give due credit to her case.
Historically, 1 out of 100 women died giving birth, and although that figure has been vastly reduced, birthing remains, and will always remain, a serious health risk. And while many women report holding the newborn in their arms for the first time, forgetting the frustrations of pregnancy and considering the hardships ‘worth it’, the fact remains: pregnancy is one of the most risky and unpleasant things a women can expect to endure.
Fetal Health & Safety
The crosstalk between mother and fetus is significant, and we don’t undermine the many well-designed parts of mammalian reproduction. But a human designer can do better. And in examining the inadequacies, one realizes there are many aspects of human reproduction that could easily be improved upon. Are fetuses safe, climbing stairs ensconced in their mothers? No.
“The womb is a dark and dangerous place, a hazardous environment,” notes Joseph Fletcher, PhD., University of Virginia Medicine. Fetuses are 100% dependent on their mother’s health and sensible judgement; if Mom falls prey to accidents, disease, drug addiction, alcoholism, chemical pollutants, cigarette smoke, or inadequate nutrition, the helpless embryo inside gets traumatized, perhaps irreparably. Forty thousand children per year are born in the USA with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, for example. Traditional delivery also has dangers—like strangling in the umbilical cord—that would be avoided if infants were “hatched” out of synthetic eggs.
Incubation in artificial wombs is immeasurably safer: perfect-balanced doses of nutrients can be provided to the “hydroponic” womb, with all dangerous toxins excluded. The concern that fetuses will be deprived of emotional development if they are physically isolated from their mothers is also unwarranted. We believe artificial wombs equipped with electronic programming can transmit parent’s personalities and emotions via vocal recordings, movement, and other sensations. The developing infant can be maintained around-the-clock in a safe environment that remains connected to the mother electronically.
Babies for Everyone
Artificial wombs will allow all humans to have as many children as they wish. Infertile couples, women who lost their wombs to disease, and the elderly all can join parental ranks with ectogenesis. Gays and lesbians—with stem cell advancement—also will be able to create children using only their own genomes via “female sperm” and “male eggs.” Former IEET Fellow Athena Andreadis has noted, “all parents will become fathers, biologically, psychologically, and, possibly, culturally,” with ectogenesis because, “women will be able to have as many children as men, even multiplets without the severe problems of extreme prematurity now inherent in such a choice.”
Female Careers Go Forward
With artificial wombs, mothers-to-be can skip maternity leaves, and certain physical vocations—like athletics and dance—will not be impacted because health won’t be compromised. Women’s competitiveness in certain areas—like politics and high finance—would subsequently accelerate. Shulamith Firestone opined that “once women break free from the tyranny of their reproductive biology, they could achieve full equality with men.”
Balanced Parental Roles
Mothers today often feel that they have invested and suffered the most to “bear fruit” and are therefore entitled to leadership roles in parenting. Artificial wombs would equalize the roles that males and females perform in reproduction, and, thus, the subsequent responsibilities. Postpartum depression that afflicts 10-20% of new mothers could be eliminated, as well as postpartum psychosis that troubles nearly 1 in 1,000. Andreadis also notes, “women will not undergo the hormonal changes of pregnancy, which means they will be as much (or as little) emotionally invested in their offspring as men.”
With fetuses conveniently kept in artificial wombs in medical laboratories, there would be easy access to genetically engineered improvement. Mutations in the embryos could be corrected, and dangerous genetic disorders—like Huntington’s Disease—could be detected immediately.
Human erotic enjoyment is all-too-often ruined by the threat of pregnancy. “Births” could take place solely via artificial wombs with our eggs and sperm harvested in early adolescence, and natural pregnancy reliably prevented.
We can expect resistance to artificial wombs, but we can also expect welcomed adoption. Arthur Caplan—a prominent bioethicist on the IEET’s Board of Trustees—has argued in a New York Times interview that “there will be a movement afoot which says all this is unnecessary and unnatural…that the way to have babies is sex and the random lottery.” Will there also be insistence that it be available? Yes. “Demand is hard to predict, but I’ll say significant,” says Caplan.
Artificial uteri aren’t arriving tomorrow—researchers at Cornell University and Juntendo University (Tokyo) have discovered that duplicating the womb’s abilities is immensely challenging. Caplan’s estimate in the NYT interview is that development arrives decades from now—around 2055. Athena Andreadis concurs with this prediction, and, she believes, “none of the required research will be conducted in the United States, for political/religious reasons.” Miodrag Stojkovic, stem cell biologist in Valencia, Spain, also regards development of artificial wombs as more than three decades away.
Sooner or later, though, it will happen.
The iconic oval shape is rolling back to us, and why not? We need not always look forward in contemplating desired futures—recreating traits from our evolutionary past are also appealing. Futurist technology, we think, is about choosing what is ideal, even if that means looking backwards.
Hank Pellissier, an IEET Affiliate Scholar, has written dozens of often-controversial transhumanist / futurist articles for IEET, H+ Magazine, the World Future Society, and other publications, occasionally under his nom de plume, “Hank Hyena.” His e-book entitled Transhuman Conversion: the Pre-Singularity Era 2010-2040 will be available in August 2011.