Artificial wombs could liberate elite women at the expense of the reproductive classes

Some feminists have dreamed of mechanising human production. 

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This month saw the 40th anniversary of the conception of Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby. It was also Equal Pay Day, the day on which, due to the current gender pay gap, UK women effectively stop earning in relation to men for the rest of the year.

If there is a relationship between these two facts, it’s a complex one. Women’s role in human reproduction has frequently been held responsible for their lower pay and status. Either it’s supposed to make us less effective workers, or it determines that our lives be spent doing work that, for some reason, does not even merit pay. Even if we do not have children, the taint of belonging to the breeder class limits our options. To some this is plain old biology, and who’s going to argue with that? (Science, that’s who.)

The reproductive technology boom that started in 1977 is now at a highly advanced stage, with successful womb transplants and even talk of artificial wombs for human babies. The technology already exists to enable women to delay conception, freeze eggs and even outsource pregnancy to others.

If reproductive biology has been the thing which held women back, then we’re reaching a stage where that can be overcome.

In theory, that is. In practice, I’d suggest we be more circumspect.

There’s always been a problem with exploring the link between female oppression and reproductive bodies. In essence it suggests that our bodies are not simply ourselves, but some kind of obstacle that must be overcome in order for women to gain full human status. In 1970’s The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone goes full-throttle for this line, advocating the use of cybernetics to carry out human reproduction in laboratories, thus liberating women from the “barbaric” experience of gestation and birth.

Not all feminists have agreed with this. As Adrienne Rich argued in 1976 Of Woman Born, the female body can become “so problematic for women” that it may seem easier “ to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit” (which none of us can actually do). By 1992, Ann Snitow was describing Firestone’s “picture of the female body as a prison from which a benign, nonpatriarchal science might release us” as dated. After all, what true liberation depends on the idea that without technological help, the liberated subject is fundamentally flawed?

Nevertheless, Firestone’s vision persists, if not in a desire to render the body obsolete, then to circumvent it linguistically. No one wants to be considered a walking womb. As Elisa Albert’s narrator puts it in her 2015 novel After Birth, “heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different […] Because, what? We might lose the vote? Because we might get veiled, imprisoned? Best deny it, deny it, make it to the Oval Office, win, win, win”. After all, you can always take the pill, freeze your eggs, rent the body of a surrogate in some far-flung country, and no one need notice you’re any different from a man, providing, of course, you’re already very wealthy.

To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.

Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.

Consider this - if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).

Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.

IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.

It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men's rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.

Four decades after the first IVF baby was conceived, we’re still nowhere near having reproductive justice for all, and nowhere near achieving equal pay for equal work. We can’t wait for science to save us. We already have the means, but now need the will.

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