Sunday, May 24, 2009

Equalizer or Terminator?

Athena Andreadis is guest-blogging this month.

Years ago, I saw a short in an animation festival. It showed earth inhabited by men who happily bopped each other and propagated by laying eggs. A starship crash interrupted the idyll. Presaging Battlestar Galactica, the newcomers proved miraculously interfertile with the men who handed them the job of propagation along with all other disagreeable chores. Things went swimmingly, at least for the men, until a rescue ship arrived. After the women left, the men were once again free to pursue manly things – until they realized they had forgotten how to lay eggs.

The short was a wry, science-fictional version of the animal wife tale. But it's interesting that we can program starships to ricochet from planet to planet and routinely use in vitro fertilization – yet if women want direct genetic descendants, they still have no alternative to pregnancy unless they are rich enough to hire a surrogate, an option burdened with ethical baggage.

Of course, a womb is much more than a warm sac of nutrients. The endocrine inputs alone would tax a medium-size factory, leaving aside those from the immune system. The complexities of its function have made an artificial womb remain a distant glimpse and attempts with mammalian embryos still fail at early stages. Yet cultural politics have been as decisive in this delay as biological challenges: think of the lightning speed with which Japanese officials approved Viagra versus their decades-long ban on oral contraceptives and you get the picture. And the upheaval brought about by contraception will be a mild breeze compared to the hurricane that will be unleashed if we ever succeed in creating an artificial uterus. Its repercussions may equal (and possibly reverse) those that accompanied the invention of agriculture.

Prior to agriculture, gatherer-hunters lived semi-nomadic lives in small groups of relatively flat hierarchies. Family configurations were fluid and quasi-egalitarian and children were few, spaced far apart and collectively raised. This persisted when the nomads first settled. The earliest agricultural communities show little social stratification: there are no ostentatious palaces or tombs. But with the ability to hoard food reserves, dynamics changed – and so did the status of women, now burdened with multiple children and deprived of mobility and the gathering skills and knowledge of their foremothers. Wombs became commodities and have remained so, with minor fluctuations, ever since.

If we succeed in creating functioning artificial wombs, they will remain luxury options (like surrogate motherhood) until/unless they become relatively cheap. At that point, it’s virtually certain that they’ll be heavily used for reasons outlined in many analyses elsewhere – primarily the sparing of both mother and child from the health problems associated with pregnancy and birth (1, 2). And if they’re used, they will have a predictable outcome: all parents will become fathers, biologically, psychologically and, possibly, culturally.

Women will be able to have as many children as men, even multiplets without the severe problems of extreme prematurity now inherent in such a choice. Additionally, women will not undergo the hormonal changes of pregnancy, which means they will be as much (or as little) emotionally invested in their offspring as men. And of course cheap working artificial wombs will also mean that women will become biologically redundant.

Having equally invested parents is standard in other species whose offspring have long periods of helplessness – birds are an obvious “nuclear” example, social insects an “extended” one. Adoptions in humans show that biological connections are not a prerequisite in forming kinship bonds, although adopted and step-children are often treated less well than biological ones.

If we go the friendly route, ending pregnancy may finally usher in true equality between the genders since women will no longer be penalized physically, psychologically, financially and socially for having children: many problems, from autism to bed wetting, will cease being automatically the mother’s responsibility or fault. Such a change may perhaps allow us to play with alternative family arrangements, from Ursula Le Guin’s Ki’O sedoretu to Poul Anderson’s Rogaviki polyandry.

If we go the other route, women could become extinct as soon as a decade after artificial wombs become widely available, except as trophies or zoo specimens. Those who think this is unlikely need only to be reminded that there are now regions of China and India where the ratio of boys to girls is two to one, courtesy of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. People may bemoan a potential world without women, but such pious thoughts didn’t stop us from extinguishing countless other species. Personally, I think that never getting born is preferable to a devalued life.

An all-male culture need not resemble a prison or an army barracks. Nevertheless, I suspect that such a society will have either slavery or indentured service even if it has advanced technology, as humans seem unable to avoid rank demarcations (although their natural ranking system is not the fixed rigid pyramid of canine bands). Their romantic Others may be transgendered men, or Wraeththu-like bish┼Źnen boys in a revival of the erastes/eromenos scheme of Periclean Athens. But like the men in the cartoon short I described earlier, even with artificial wombs these guys will eventually bump into another wall: ovarian stocks.

Like wombs, ova are not passive nurturing chambers. For one, they select which sperm to let in when the hordes come knocking. Additionally, beyond transmitting half the nuclear and all the mitochondrial genes, eggs also contain organized spacetime gradients that direct correct formation and epigenetic imprinting of the embryo. Re-creating this kind of organized cytoplasm makes an artificial womb seem simple by comparison and if there are any trophy women left at that point their fate may be grim.

Wanting to hear another person’s views on this matter, I asked my partner, without any preamble or explanation, “What do you think will happen to women if we create working artificial wombs?” And he, proving yet again how much he deserves the title of snacho, replied without missing a beat, “Nothing. Women are the reason men want to get out of bed in the morning.” I couldn’t help smiling… and I reflected that, as long as even tiny pockets of such people continue to exist, we may get to travel to the stars, after all.

Starship Reckless

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