Hot Topics: Gender Disparities
The possibility of artificial womb technology (ectogenesis) is no longer hypothetical. Three years ago, scientists put a 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.Full Article
by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
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