Ectogenesis – the gestation of children in artificial wombs – has long been considered by many feminist writers as the ultimate liberation for women from the tyranny of reproduction and the limitations it imposes on women’s autonomy. It has also been said to be necessary to ‘challenge traditional patriarchal family structures, and thence all other male-dominated structures (of work, education, cultural production), allowing a reimagining of the family and society.’
If a concept video, misleadingly entitled ‘EctoLife: The World’s First Artificial Womb Facility’ is anything to go by (the whole video is entirely imaginary), then ectogenesis is so superior to conventional pregnancy no one would ever think of carrying a child themselves ever again. ‘Ectolife enables infertile couples to conceive a baby and become the true biological parents of their own offspring’, the viewer is informed as if this were something that had never before been possible! You can also choose a playlist of music your baby listens to, and the bonding experience with the baby is claimed to be ‘enhanced’ by a ‘360 camera that’s fitted inside your pod.’ Virtual reality is better than actual reality, it seems, when it comes to bonding with your baby.
Ectogenesis of lambs for up to four weeks in a Biobag was first reported in 2017, and more recently, mouse embryos have been grown in an artificial womb for up 12 days – half their gestational age. However, the headline reporting this advance could not resist adding, ‘humans could be next’. They certainly won’t be since, despite the hype, we are probably decades away from ‘Ectolife’ type factory production lines of perfect little darlings. As a recent article, quoting Matt Kemp, who runs the perinatal lab at Western Australia’s Women and Infants Research Foundation makes clear, ‘…clinical trials involving human babies are a long way off. “Anyone who tells you they are going to be doing this in two years either has a wealth of data that is not in the public domain or is being a bit sensationalist.”’
Some, at least of the recent comment on the Ectolife vision, has been highly critical, not primarily about the timescale of the project but the wisdom of it. A recent, insightful blog entitled ‘Podbabies: coming to a womb facility near you’ concludes, ‘A mother’s devotion to her baby is the template for our (wavering) belief that all human life has value. When we stop making mothers, we hack at the foundations of that value. Pity the factory-made infants, newborn and helpless in such a world.’
This is a crucial point. The God of the Bible alludes to the devotion of a mother as an analogy of his own dedication and commitment to his people. ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’ (Isaiah 49:15). Yes, she may forget, but the real power of the analogy is that of all people, a mother who has given birth to and nourished her own child is the least likely to do so. In our secular age, a mother’s love for her baby is rightly appealed to as an indicator of the intrinsic value and dignity of all human life. But the Scriptures reveal that even that love, for all its burning intensity, is but a reflection of the divine love of God, who ultimately brought all humanity into being. In future decades, gestation may eventually be physiologically replicated in a pod, but the maternal bonds wrought in a mother’s womb never can be. They can, of course, be despised or dismissed, but it will be at the next generations’ peril.