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Artificial wombs are only three years away - how scared should women be?

Some "men's rights activists" hope that technology will make women obsolete. 

According to the charmingly titled Men’s Rights Activist blog Boycott Bitches, “the future is pretty dark for women”. This is because: “Once artificial wombs are invented, real human women will become obsolete.”

If that’s true, then real human women had better come up with some contingency plan, because it looks as though the clock’s already started ticking.

Following a successful study involving lamb foetuses, it’s been reported that an artificial womb environment may be ready for human trials within three to five years. While researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have ruled out the possibility of using the system for anything other than care for premature babies, surely this could mark the beginning of what A Voice For Men’s Jack Barnes calls “men’s liberation”.

“No one group,” writes Barnes, “Should have as much power over reproduction as women have”. With the advent of what he respectfully calls the “stunt c*nt”, Barns predicts that “women will be forced to grow up and treat men as human beings instead of just sperm-dispensing machines who can open jars and take bullets”.

One suspects this is not what Shulamith Firestone was hoping for when, in The Dialectic of Sex, she called for “the freeing of women from the tyranny of their biology by any means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole”. Then again, neither feminism nor patriarchy have ever been quite sure whether women’s capacity to give birth makes us over-valued or totally useless.

From Barnes’s perspective, it makes us all powerful, since “men still feel this need to protect the baby-makers” (from what? He doesn’t say). Firestone, on the other hand, describes pregnancy as “barbaric”: “the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species”. But if the capacity to gestate were no longer exclusive to females, what would this really mean? Would women, as a class, really disappear? And if so, would it even matter?

Much has been written on men’s fear of obsolescence due to their subordinate role in human reproduction. While feminists have suggested that abstract concepts such as virility and potency may have been developed to overshadow the creative capacity of the female body, non-feminists have often taken the line that even if these are attempts at compensation, there can be no point in questioning them. The important thing is making men feel valued, or else they might end up killing each other and quite possibly you, too. Hence the regular bouts of handwringing over “the end of men” and “masculinity in crisis”. Don’t take away too many of their things, women are told. Otherwise you’re left with men such as Barnes, longing for the day when there can be “an open season on women”.

By contrast, it is not generally anticipated that women should experience a similar level of existential angst over losing their place in the world as women. After all, as feminists have long pointed out, it’s not a particularly good place to be. Why, one might ask, would female people even want some form of collective validation? How could that be anything other than a confirmation of female inferiority? Far better, surely, to expand the definition of non-manhood until no one notices us, the female subset. Maybe then there’d be nothing left for men to exploit, envy or hate.

Indeed, in psychological terms, I think there’s something to be said for letting go of the idea of women as a subordinate class. It does smack of an adherence to the idea of one’s own subordination. So what if we can be replaced, piecemeal, by the sex robots and the artificial wombs? Doesn’t that relieve us of some of the more arduous tasks that have traditionally accompanied being female? Farewell, sexual servitude. So long, reproductive exploitation. We’ve got machines that can do all that for you.

The only trouble is, attacking the root cause of a social hierarchy isn’t the same as attacking the hierarchy itself. What’s more, the liberating potential of new technology has a tendency, not of elevating the downtrodden, but of removing so-called limitations faced by the already privileged.

Take IVF, for instance, which has enabled rich white westerners to pay for their white babies to be gestated in the bodies of poor women of colour. Meanwhile around 830 women, again most of them poor women of colour, will die every day due to preventable complications of pregnancy and birth. This is how our brave new world functions. Money that could be spent on preventing the deaths of poor women is spent on ensuring the rich can access all the glory but none of the pain that goes into creating new life. The primary purpose of reproductive technology is not to help those in need; it is to refine the ways in which they can be exploited. If death in childbirth is a problem, the solution isn’t to save the women themselves; it’s to create a gestator that isn’t living to begin with.

Just as sex dolls can’t say no or make demands, artificial wombs can’t die. Nor can they eat, drink, smoke, take drugs, drive too fast, demand time off work, expect recognition for their gestational labour, or do any of the other disagreeable things that pregnant women are wont to do because they have minds and needs of their own. And in that sense, the MRAs are right. The sex doll + artificial womb combo could be the perfect wife replacement, providing there were also robots who could take care of the cooking, cleaning and childcare.

Then again, without a woman with an inner life, such men would find themselves without a woman whose inner life could be denied. Someone upon whom to inflict real, lasting pain. Maybe that’s what will be left for human women: feeling pain so that men feel bigger and stronger. Stripped down to the basics, isn’t that what today’s pornified culture is telling us men need? Isn’t it saying that’s what women are for?

And isn’t that what the erasure of women is always about: elevating men, redrawing the boundaries of manhood, ensuring men do not feel at risk of disappearing themselves? It’s one of patriarchy’s greatest ironies. Women – what we are and feel and do – must be rendered invisible, but we must also exist. The sex doll has to represent someone who could feel actual pain, otherwise she might as well represent anything. The man who runs a website called Boycott Bitches will always need bitches to boycott, otherwise his life would have no meaning.

In this sense, the arrival of the artificial womb means neither women’s end nor our liberation. It’s just another twist in the story of our exploitation and our resistance. I don’t think the future’s any darker than the present. It’s understanding what is done to us, and by whom, that enables us to see the light.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.