This article was first published by DigiCult
by Patricia de Vries
In the next five years, the artificial womb will become a medical reality. Ectogenesis, outside-the-womb gestation, is increasingly viable for human embryos. Will it lead to a feminist utopia, or is it the newest manifestation of an age-old male fantasy? This question has occupied the minds of feminists, science-fiction writers, artists and scientists for decades. It resurfaced when a €2,9 million grant from the EU-program Horizon 2020 was awarded to a team of researchers in The Netherlands to develop a prototype of an artificial womb.
Ectogenesis – from the Greek ecto, outer, and genesis, birth – is a term you might hear more often in the future. First coined in 1923, it broadly refers to the growth of an organism in an artificial environment outside the body. Over the past few months, the ectogenesis has become a subject of increasing public debate in The Netherlands after Dutch scientists at the Eindhoven University of Technology announced the viability of a prototype in the next five years.[i] A €2,9 mil EU research grant awarded in October 2019 for the development of a working prototype in clinics supports their claim.
The current developments in the prototyping of an artificial womb are part of the larger history of reproductive technologies, including birth control and in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The development of the artificial womb is also part of the broader history of the uterus as a site of contestation and exploitation. The uterus undertows a major historical shift in Western societies. In her seminal book, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004), Silvia Federici exhaustively documents how control over the uterus was critical to the foundation of capitalism.[ii] Key drivers of the development of capitalism in Europe were colonisation, the Atlantic slave trade, the expropriation of the European peasantry from its lands, and the repressive control of women’s bodies, including unwaged (reproductive) work. Federici documents how the primary accumulation of capital meant the development of a new sexual division of labour subjugating women’s labour and women’s reproductive function to the production of the workforce. It further gave shape to the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged work and their subordination to men. And also to the mechanisation of women’s bodies as machines for the production of new workers, which included the criminalisation of abortion. Women, Federici argues, were to produce labour-power for the farms and workshops, and cannon fodder for the imperial wars. The development of an artificial womb is situated and embedded in this history of capitalist labour, too.
The Artificial Womb
To be sure, we’re not talking about a fully functioning artificial womb here. Nor are we talking about automated birthing. The forth-coming Dutch prototype will be closer to a bag-like container which surrounds an extremely prematurely-born baby with fluids and delivers oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that connects to the baby’s umbilical cord. Indeed, “artificial womb” is a bit of a misnomer or at least more aspiration than reality. The yet-to-be-developed prototype is more of a step in the increasing artificialisation of biological reproduction, one that will provide babies with an environment that simulates physiological conditions. In short: it’s a new type of incubator meant to intervene in the high number of premature baby deaths every year. Hence, any ideas about carrying a fully formed fetus outside a woman’s uterus belong, for now at least, to the realm of science-fiction and speculative art and design.
Art Imitates Life
As Oscar Wilde once famously wrote, in 1889, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. Artistic and fictional imaginaries play a vital role in the development of new technologies and practices. Indeed, the realm of (science-)fiction and (speculative) art matters in real life. And in this case, it matters a great deal. An image of the artificial womb prototype (Fig. 1.) went viral in more than 3 million online search results, announcing its development. Hendrik-Jan Grievink and Lisa Mandemaker, designers from the Amsterdam-based studio Next Nature Network, designed the prototype in collaboration with the team of awarded professors and researchers from Máxima Medical Centre in Eindhoven and scientists at the Eindhoven University of Technology.
The prototype was photographed during the acclaimed Dutch Design Week of 2018, where it was first presented as design-for-debate by Professor Guid Oei. It will most probably not be used to help grow premature babies. Instead, it has given us an initial impression of the world’s first artificial womb for humans. Upon receiving the EU-grant Prof. Oei responded: “During the next five years, we will conduct further research and test these technologies in a European collaboration, and continue to develop them until we manage to realise a prototype of an artificial womb.”[iii]
Historically, Dutch designers, perhaps most notably Hella Jongerius, Tejo Remy, Piet Hein Eek, Jan Konings and Jurgen Bey, have occupied a hallowed position as global pioneers and forward thinkers. And perhaps most famously, the company Droog Design by Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker represent the beginning of the avant-garde of Dutch designers in the early 1990s. Their work set the tone for years to come as critical, ironic, conceptual design, driven by the designers’ social and ethical responsibility. Echoing the critical and conceptual approach of their field, designers at Next Nature initiated a research-through-design project to explore “the impact of technology on biological reproduction, gender and family”.[iv] Part of this project is a speculative design exhibition around the topic of artificial reproduction titled Reprodutopia. The exhibition opened in October 2019 at Droog’s gallery in Amsterdam. Next Nature Network wrote that the Reprodutopia “is disguised as a future clinic that presents thought-provoking visions of reproductive technologies by artists and designers… It’s time for a much-needed discussion about the way technology radically alters our attitude towards reproduction, gender, relationships and love in the 21st century. If we are to rewrite the human story, let’s make sure it becomes a story that benefits all.”[v]
Speculative design reflects on present social anxieties and desires by imagining futures. The mandate of design can be to spark debate and, in the case of Next Nature Network, to imagine future technological scenarios to raise questions about the ethical and social consequences they present to us today. And the timing couldn’t be better. In 2017, scientists in Philadelphia kept a premature lamb alive for four weeks in an artificial womb. And in 2018 the first Chinese “designer babies” Lulu and Nana were born. Both are resistant to HIV infection. Doctors admitted to genetically modifying the embryos’ DNA. Undoubtedly, reproduction and birthing are on the brink of massive technological change and demands our collective attention.
Since its conception, as a term and a future aspiration, ectogenesis has hit a nerve. In 1923 the Heretics Society of the University of Cambridge invited John Haldane, a British biologist and radical thinker to deliver a paper at one of their infamous lecture series. The society was meant as a safe space for radical thinkers to question authorities and religious dogma and to speak their non-conformist minds. Invitees included, amongst others, Jane Harrison and Virginia Woolf. The crucial part of Haldane’s paper was written from the perspective of a biology student from the year 2073, a year in which ectogenesis, he claimed, would be universal. “The effect on human psychology and social life of the separation of sexual love and reproduction is by no means wholly satisfactory. The old family life certainly had a good deal to commend it,” the future-student reminisced.[vi] But, ectogenesis has its perks, Haldane explained: “The small proportion of men and women who are selected as ancestors for the next generation are so undoubtedly superior to the average that the advance in each generation in any single respect, from the increased output of first-class music to the decreased convictions for theft, is very startling.”[vii] Had it not been for ectogenesis, Haldane claimed, “there can be little doubt that civilisation would have collapsed within a measurable time owing to the greater fertility of the less desirable members of the population in almost all countries.”[viii] Haldane, an avowed Communist, intentionally provoked his listeners with his speculative-fiction avant la lettre on a future of the pre-selected and privileged Ubermensch.
The Baby Business
Considering the controversy ectogenesis continues to court, where do the imaginations of designers take us? For visitors to Reprodutopia the future looks like a mobile clinic, resembling a cross between a high-end private medical facility and the Genius Bar at an Apple store. Its employees, dressed in long white coats, offered personalised self-help-style advice for designing your reproductive future. This centrepiece was Next Nature Network’s artificial womb prototype, the one presented by Oei at the Dutch Design Week: a collection of five synthetic spheres, the size of office ball-chairs, suspended from the ceiling.
Notably, the lead medical scientists of the artificial womb project are an all-male cast: Prof. dr. Frans van de Vosse, Prof. dr.ir. Loe Feijs and Prof. dr. Guid Oei. Gender is noteworthy here. Doing science and designing a speculative artificial womb, consist of situated and embodied acts. “Situated knowledges”, a term coined by feminist author Donna Haraway in 1988, describes the interrelated and inseparable planes of ontology, epistemology, politics and ethics.[ix] All knowledges, Haraway argued, are situated knowledges. Science is a doing, and this doing is done by bodies. Bodies are marked, and their marking is always determined by their role in “scientific and technological, late-industrial, militarised, racist, and male-dominant societies”.[x] Which is to say science, as embodied and situated acts of knowledges, is always overburdened by existing power relations.
Jeffrey Baker writes in The Machine in the Nursery (1996) that in the early days of the development of the incubator, in Europe, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, it was believed by many male doctors and male scientists that the incubator should be, analogous to the womb, a closed system containing warm fluids, and impenetrable to light. Claire Horn explains that early attempts to create an artificial womb were accompanied by the shared concern of many obstetricians “that mothers themselves, with their unsanitary practices, irresponsible behaviour and anxious fussing, might pose a danger to their infants – a danger that could be curbed by placing the uterus-incubator firmly in the doctors’ hands.”[xi] Evidently, there are power relations at stake in ectogenesis research and its design speculations, too. Foremost, women’s bodies as sites of ongoing contestation, which simultaneously taps into a range of political and ethical questions and considerations about birthing, reproduction, parenting, sex, relationships, and of course motherhood.
The cultural theorist Valeria Graziano makes a poignant argument that is worth quoting in length:
“For too many women, motherhood is still not a choice, as contraceptives and safe abortion options are still not made available to them… For too many women, motherhood is not a choice as they are pressured into it as the only social role available to them. For too many women, motherhood is a choice, yes, but of giving up on other practices, studying, working, creating, participating in politics or in the life of their communities, simply because the joys of motherhood are all they are supposed to aspire to while they toil away in the solitary drudgery of domestic labour. For too many women, motherhood can only take the form of a sacrificial love, as they exhaust themselves juggling the demands of making a living, of complying with bureaucracy, of confronting the devastating paucity of care provisions. For too many women, because of the demands of making a living, of complying with bureaucracy, and the devastating paucity of care provisions, motherhood is not an option at all. Celebrating motherhood as a political horizon we might not yet know how to figure, as a collective capacity rather than an individualising one, and also as something worth rejecting at times.”[xii]
Indeed, how can we reimagine, collectivise and re-design social reproduction? As surrogacy researcher and author Sophie Lewis writes, “hundreds of thousands of women die because of their pregnancies every year”.[xiii] In the U.S about a 1,000 people die during childbirth, and another 65,000 come dangerously close to dying. Lewis explains: “This situation is social, not simply ‘natural.’ Things are like this for political and economic reasons: we made them this way,” she writes in her book Full Surrogacy Now.[xiv] Gestating can be a deadly business. Typically, safer gestation has always been the privilege of the white and wealthy. So, when it comes to the development of the artificial womb, it’s important to know who will design and directs these processes, and who will benefit from it.
Testicles, or the Patriarchal Desire to Control Reproduction
The first thing to notice about the artificial womb prototype is that the bunch of flesh-coloured balls look eerily like loitering testicles. It is of importance — and tragi-comic — that the prototype has more likeness to dangling testicles than to the shape of, say, a womb. The balls further evoke images of the alchemical homunculus. And not without reason. The aspiration to design an artificial womb, a womb-replica if you like, is an age-old dream in the history of medical science. Its history can be traced back to early automata, when medieval alchemists huddled around glass containers trying to conjure up miniature men in tiny bottles. Some medieval alchemists liked to believe that a homunculus could have superior powers, that it could become a spiritually clean and pure being, that is, a better version of the human.
The artificial womb taps into a history of different versions and interpretations of the story of the homunculus. For some feminists, the homunculus represents the erasure of women from sexual reproduction by technology: men creating beings without the need for women. Others muse optimistically about the prospect of artificial reproduction, viewing it as a feminist technology that might liberate women from the health risks involved in carrying and birthing children, re-assigning agency to women, rendering them outside the constraints of their bodies and so-called “biological clocks”. Second-wave feminists warned that it could repress as much as liberate, especially when conditions of gender inequality remain unchanged. The writer Shulamith Firestone, although a major proponent of artificial womb technology, wrote in 1970 in The Dialectic of Sex that, “In the hands of the present society there is no doubt that the machine could be used — is being used — to intensify the apparatus of repression and to increase established power”.[xv]
Either way, today’s developments in emerging reproductive technologies hark back to the earlier fantasy visions of the homunculus. And the homunculus, in turn, echoes the enduring male fantasy of god-like power: artificially created life. Which is to say, the artificial womb prototype ushers in a lineage of technology that is poised to ultimately introduce gestation without a biological “host”– the ultimate god-trick. Speculative stories we tell about the future of reproduction — whether imagined in the form of design-fiction, narrativised in science-fiction or represented in films — are embodied and embedded, come from somewhere and are entangled in well-established and continuing power relations and age-old fantasies.
Which raises the question: What thoughts about reproductive futures does the artificial womb prototype evoke? And who benefits from these futures? Perhaps one tongue-in-cheek text written by Next Nature might go some way to help to answer these questions. Printed on pale pink paper, the reader finds a selection of fictional Craig’s List-style advertisements in the Reprodutopia exhibition brochure. They read like a series of dating adverts from the future, placed by people searching for co-parents (Fig 4). One reads: “Baires, 19 : Looking for a partner to raise eleven children. Why eleven? That’s the number I need to create my own soccer team.”
Using humour and exaggeration, Reprodutopia offers a variety of speculative design objects on the topic of artificial reproduction. Take for example the Parenting Kit (2018), designed by Next Nature, also available in Mono, Duo and Poly versions. Its design closely resembles a cross between an online DNA test and software packaging. The description urged visitors to imagine a future where anyone of us could send off a skin sample to a futuristic lab and through a process called “in vitro gametogenesis” our skin cells would be transformed into both sperm and eggs, and we could fertilise ourselves to create a baby. The Parenting Kit enables you to have a child without a genetic partner, with a partner of the same sex, or to have a child with a group of people that together contribute to 100% of the genetic material required for vitro gametogenesis. The Kit, the description text concedes, allows for different forms of parenthood to emerge and be fostered. It will enable tinkering with and assembling a curated cocktail of genetic material to create offspring, again raising the spectre of Haldane’s Ubermensch and designer babies.
It seems the sterile atmosphere of future medical fertility clinics is fertile ground for merchandise and commerce-driven ritualisation, as evidenced by the Virgin Parent Ring (2019) and Lab Romanticism (2019),[xvi] two more design pieces in the exhibition. In theory, artificial reproduction would allow for immaculate conception; virgins could grow a child in the artificial womb, like a present-day Mother Mary and Joseph. This possibility inspired the design of the Virgin Parent Ring. The ring has the words ‘virgin parent’ engraved on its outside and can be purchased at the future reproduction clinic and exchanged between “parents who are virgin and proud,” the exhibition text explains. Lab Romanticism, in turn, provides prospective parents with a selection of mindful romantic rituals to give some colour and heart to the “detached” medical procedure of artificial reproduction and the sterility of the future reproduction clinics. Like the Virgin Parent Ring, it ‘updates’ long-standing, semi-religious ritualistic and romantic practices. Tasks include lighting candles, raking sand in a mini zen garden and exchanging rings, to offer future parents “a meaningful experience”.
Reprodutopia alludes to the perpetuation and pervasion of neoliberalism into the future artificial reproduction clinic, and the persistent conservatism of the romantic imperative. It touches on fears of destiny control exemplified by new forms of eugenics and artificially constructed babies. Notwithstanding their importance, these topics are old wine in new bottles. If the artificial womb is meant to benefit all in a future Reprodutopia or, perhaps first and foremost, to liberate women, then we need to foster a proliferation of relationships of love and care, and radically reimagine the present-day position of men in the making and rearing of children. Sharing a romantic moment in the future clinic might be valuable to some — after all, sharing joys is easy. But how about sharing the actual hard, exhausting, repetitive and often thankless work of child-rearing?
What is needed are speculative visions on how current systems of constraint around reproduction could change with the emergence of the artificial womb. We need radical imaginings of how the artificial womb might shake the cultural constructs of motherhood and the nuclear family, the mother node of child-rearing. In the next 10 years, artificial wombs might lower the deadly risks of pregnancy and birthing. But how might it change (for better or worse) gender roles in society in the long run? The carrying and birthing of children has been biologically assigned to women. Within capitalist, heteronormative and patriarchal cultures, childcare and child-rearing has historically been imposed on women as unwaged labour. Questions of what might change for men with artificial reproduction are therefore paramount. Might it assuage capitalist patriarchal expropriation and exploitation of women’s bodies? Might it make a dent in heteronormativity? Or, and more modestly, might it change persistent practices of unwaged housework, gender-based pay-gaps and the so-called glass ceiling? What are its affordances concerning dating, sex and parity? And, what other societal shifts can be imagined if the womb functioned as a tool for hire for personal surrogacy? Also: What new forms of capitalist exploitation and expropriation might it introduce? Or, and preferably, what radical and collectivising modes of parenting might become imaginable?
Indeed, the designers of Next Nature Network are right to insist that there is a need for speculative design and public debate on the future uses of these technologies. And it must be noted that Reprodutopia touches on the possibility of multiple-parent reproduction. However, it leaves the social and political implications of this innovation unimagined. Going forward, we need more and more radical speculative design (and by extension artistic and science-fiction) imaginaries of the socio-political and economic futures of reproductive technologies and its possible implications. Of course, the artificial womb will not solve deeply-rooted systemic problems, but speculative design and design-fiction offer the freedom to enter the future after that fact. Wandering around the Reprodutopia’s future clinic of artificial reproduction the words of James Baldwin came to mind. In a different context, he once shrewdly observed: “the vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live.”[xvii] And that world seems, alas, to lack a vision for radical change. Instead, it aligns artificial reproduction with the efficiency, control, and commercialisation of the market—business as usual, and more of a repro-dystopia.
The author would like to thank Dr. Natalie Dixon for her insights, comments and research on this article.
[ii] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation, Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004.
[vi] J.B.S. Haldane, “Daedalus of Science and the Future”, [lecture] Cambridge University, February 4th, 1923. Available at:
[ix] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599. Available at: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0046-3663%28198823%2914%3A3%3C575%3ASKTSQI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M
[xi] Claire Horn, “The History of the Incubator Makes a Sideshow of Mothering”, Aeon, June 3 2020, https://psyche.co/ideas/the-history-of-the-incubator-makes-a-sideshow-of-mothering
[xii] Valeria Graziano, post in Facebook-group Pirate Care Network, 8 May, 2020.
[xiii] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, London & New York: Verso Books, 2019.
[xv] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, New York, NY: Bantam Book, 1970.
[xvii] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York, NY: The Dial Press, 1963.