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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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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.