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Posted on March 16, 2020 at 8:48 AM

The possibility of artificial womb technology
(ectogenesis) is no longer hypothetical. Three years ago, scientists put
premature lamb fetus in an artificial womb and it was able to develop normally to term. Scientists
and others today are working on developing an 
artificial womb for humans.

There has been much discussion in the bioethics
literature recently about 
whether ectogenesis would be empowering for women, freeing them from their traditional role as child-bearer
and child-rearer.
Indeed,
some claim that the root of gender inequality is the fact that ciswomen
experience pregnancy, whereas cismen do not. According to this argument, if
pregnancy were no longer associated with a particular gender, then gender
inequality would be eradicated.

Yet I find it unlikely that new
reproductive technologies alone will engender gender equality without
significant social changes
as well. In other words, if
ectogenesis were to become the new normal for all pregnancies, this would not
necessarily sever ties between women and traditional women’s work (e.g.
childcare, housework, etc.). This is because women’s oppression is not based on
just one obstacle but rather is a multifaceted interlocking system. Feminist
philosopher
Marilyn Frye uses the analogy
of a birdcage to explain oppression, which I quote at length because she so
adroitly explains why oppression is so difficult to recognize and to overcome:

“If you look very closely
at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your
conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could
look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and unable to see why a
bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere.
Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire,
you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to
get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that

the closest scrutiny
could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except
in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the
wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole
cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere… It is perfectly
obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related
barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but
which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of
a dungeon. It is now possible to grasp one of the reasons why oppression can be
hard to see and recognize. One can study the elements of an oppressive
structure with great care and good will without seeing the structure as a
whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking
at a cage and that there are people there who are caged, whose motion and
mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced… As the cage-ness
of the birdcage is a macroscopic phenomenon, the oppressiveness of the situations
in which women live our various and different lives is a macroscopic
phenomenon. Neither can be seen from a microscopic perspective. But when you
look macroscopically you can see it – a network of forces and barriers which
are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction
and molding of women and the lives we live.”

Ectogenesis is not the only type of reproductive technology that
has been portrayed as something that will minimize gender inequalities and
augment women’s reproductive autonomy. In the last decade, “social” or
“elective” egg freezing has been described as a form of “reproductive
affirmative action” that will level the playing field for women by allowing
them to delay childbearing. However, many feminist scholars, including
myself,
argue that this portrayal of egg freezing is deceptive and inaccurate not only
because egg freezing is not guaranteed, but also because such technologies only
address one aspect of the various and multifaceted challenges women face in
balancing careers and families.

Reproductive technologies like ectogenesis and egg freezing generally
do not solve social problems because they do not address the root of the issue,
which is social in nature, not medical. Egg freezing is often presented as
allowing women time to focus on their education and careers. But empirical
research demonstrates that most women are “delaying” childbearing because they
lack a partner, not because they need more time to focus on their professional
lives. This is a social issue that egg freezing cannot address. Similarly,
while ectogenesis may “free” women from pregnancy, it will not, on its own,
rewrite deeply entrenched gender norms that align femininity with traditional
private realm activities like childcare and household chores.

There are many benefits to reproductive technologies, but we
should be careful about claims that they will “cure” gender inequalities, which
result from oppressive power systems. Reproductive technologies like
ectogenesis and egg freezing may remove one wire from the birdcage, but they
will not dismantle the entire oppressive system.

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