Recently, a book written in French by a well known biophysicist and philosopher with degrees in Medicine and biophysics from the University of Paris caught my attention and filled me with bewilderment and shock. In this book called “The Artificial Uterus” (2005), Prof. Atlan resurrects Haldane’s 1924 prediction of an artificial womb which he coined as “ectogenesis.” Haldane’s prophesy envisions a world where by virtue of ectogenesis, the less desirable members of society could be discarded, thus saving civilization from collapse. With this technology, contraception, abortion, restrictions during pregnancy and differences between males and females will be things of the past. Prof. Atlan envisions this mechanical uterus to be operational within 10 to 50 years, especially by virtue of the latest discovery of cracking the code which has changed the way researchers view how the body functions and he anticipates the bioethical implications resulting for this revolutionary technology.
This book describes in a few chapters how ectogenesis could fulfill the aspirations of many women to develop “outside” the womb through a machine which will be acting as if it were a mother. Ectogenesis appears appealing if you take into consideration the end of contraception, abortion, and the limitations during pregnancy, the ultimate liberation of women and the paradox of women desiring equality between sexes. In this book, Prof. Atlan ponders on the possibility of bringing into the world such a revolutionary technology providing that it is widely needed and desired. According to Prof. Atlan, this technology would be nothing else than the achievement of a process which has already produced in our society the legalization of contraception and abortion. Wouldn’t this technology signify the ultimate liberation of women? In Prof. Atlan’s words “maternity under the ectogenesis conditions would come very close to paternity.” (Actually, this thought is indeed debatable since pregnancy in our society plays a strategic role for women by being the only decision makers for producing birth).
Prof. Atlan also questions the present gap of what is to be considered as an embryo in the absence of fertilization. He posits that the present gap of approx. six months between the blastocyst stage a few days after in vitro fertilization and the 24th week of gestation as threshold for extrauterine viability. With the possible emergence of the artificial uterus, the definition of what is an embryo has to take into account this possibility of implantation into an artificial uterus.
Prof. Atlan places somewhat of a subtle critique of the modern thoughts involving pregnancy. He questions what constitutes the essence of maternity and what constitutes a priority, the social bond or the biological bond. Thus, this artificial uterus is considered as a technology which could be available based on the goals and ideals of society, and as a tool which could stimulate thoughts and criticisms of the present foundations of inequality between the sexes. In fact, armed with this new technology, men and women would actually be equal when it comes to the function of reproduction.
Prof. Atlan delves into the repercussions that the artificial uterus may produce such as social, cultural, economic, political, religious, and even metaphysical. With the emergence of such technology, procreation would be more and more in the realm of medical intervention and paradoxically, parenthood will be more and more social and less biological.
In my personal opinion, the artificial uterus would serve rather well for incubating prematurely born babies (as Prof. Atlan suggests) and would provide the opportunity to increase knowledge of one of nature’s greatest mysteries, the molding of a baby in the womb. However, nature’s maternal womb is intrinsically equipped to nurture the baby for nine months, thus creating a subliminal bond between mother and child, something that a machine is unable to provide. In other words, this technology would replace the warmth of the maternal body with the cold organs of a machine. Thus, with this type of thinking, we are changing the nature of being human and the control that women have had over procreation for millennia. In addition, it is logical to imagine that technologies of these types can easily fall into the wrong hands; during the Nazi years, Hitler’s goal was to exterminate an entire Jewish race and the mentally deficient population and replace it with a “pure Aryan” culture. With the artificial womb, nefarious leaders such as Hitler could determine how children are conceived, what kind of children will be born, and how many could be a member of a perfect “cyborg culture.” Prepare yourself in a few decades for a major societal revolution.