In 2017, a team of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia kept a pre-viable lamb fetus alive for four weeks in an amniotic sac, one designed to imitate the womb from which the developing embryo had been prematurely plucked. The fetus’ pumping heart facilitated the exchange of nutrients and other growth factors between the lamb and its environment. Researchers watched as the fetus developed in this artificial environment from a pink, alien-looking thing into a breathing, swallowing animal.
As news of the artificial womb spread, some suggested that the medical device—designed to eventually help severely premature human babies—was a step toward a future imagined by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel Brave New World. Huxley depicts a world in which embryos are fertilized in test tubes, chemically arranged into hierarchical socio-biological groupings from Alphas (who go on to take the most important roles in society) to Epsilons (a slave caste who work in large crematoriums, mining phosphorous from burnt human remains), and then brought to term in a “hatchery.”
So controversial and influential was Huxley’s vision that, even today, almost 90 years later, any technology that supports the life of a fetus outside the womb is almost inevitably linked with his dystopia. An artificial womb is taken as a signifier of a technologically stratified future, one in which we give up our last and most profound connection to evolutionary history, to our animal ancestors, and to each other.
But what many don’t know is that Huxley’s dystopia was actually the end-point of a decade-long debate among some of Britain’s most prominent scientists and philosophers about the possibilities and dangers of artificial wombs. Due to the scientific advances of the time, many of these eminent thinkers believed that this revolutionary technology was just around the corner. And while for Huxley this was a terrifying prospect, for many of his more radical contemporaries, it was just the opposite.
The first extended discussion of artificial wombs was given in a lecture in 1923 by J.B.S. Haldane, an English biologist who was among the first people to propose that an egg could be fertilized outside of the womb. The lecture took place at the Heretics Society of the University of Cambridge, a regular event that had been established in 1909 by the English philosopher Charles Kay Ogden. The Society was meant as a safe haven for dissident intellectuals, a space to question traditional authorities and religious dogma. Ogden, who considered himself an “intellectual emancipator,” invited the most exciting minds of the time—George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein—and gave them permission to speak about whatever they wanted. The purpose was to be non-conformist, shocking, provocative.
When Haldane was invited to give a lecture at the Society, he conformed to these non-conformist expectations. His talk, entitled “Daedalus, or Science and the Future,” was written from the perspective of a student in 2073 writing about advances in biology of the preceding 150 years. The student describes how in 1951 two scientists extracted the ovaries of a woman who died in a plane crash, fertilized her eggs, and then brought the fetus to term in a “suitable fluid.” In the world this essay describes, by the turn of the millennium, humans have stopped procreating with the “former instinctive cycle” altogether, which, in turn, allows for a more rational and enlightened reproductive process, which Haldane called “ectogenesis,” meaning the complete gestation of a fetus outside of the body.
Haldane’s lecture was controversial, which was his intention. He was part of a progressive milieu within the English upper-class that liked to provoke with new and radical ideas. During the 1930s, while teaching at University College, London, he became an avowed communist. And Haldane’s wife used their parlor as a meeting place for like-minded poets, philosophers, scientists, and writers. Within this coterie there was a kind of rebellious utopianism, a belief prompted in part by the horror of World War I that the future could be radically different from the past, and that science and technology would be key driving forces in this progressive revolution.
Ectogenesis was, for Haldane, the perfect example of how science could bring about radical social change: by freeing women from the necessity of pregnancy, sex and reproduction would be uncoupled, which would, he believed, drastically change the imbalance of power in society. “With the fundamentals of ectogenesis in his brain,” he wrote, “the biologist is the possessor of knowledge that is going to revolutionize human life.”
Haldane’s ideas on ectogenesis received praise from a number of fellow progressive intellectuals, including Dora Russell, the wife of Bertrand. In 1925, she wrote her own essay on the future of science in which she defended an emancipatory conception of ectogenesis quite similar to Haldane’s from a feminist standpoint. The very idea of artificial gestation would allow women to imagine a different social reality, she said, one in which they did not have to bear children, and thus were not required to perform a maternal role that kept them servile, house-bound, and outside the public sphere.
The medical historian Ivan Crozier noted in the Journal of the History of Sexuality that Russell favored a broader movement that aligned feminist interests with scientific progress. While she knew that the public would be instinctively repulsed by the idea of babies grown in glass bottles, she maintained that there was nothing in particular about ectogenesis that made it any more unnatural than the biological meddling humans had been engaging in for millennia to breed animals and grow crops. The notion that women’s bodies were naturally sanctified was sexist. It excluded women from the benefits of science and technology. “They condemn us for having sought the aid of science and technology to mitigate our suffering,” Russell wrote, “and in the same breath tell us that a return to natural child-bed will bring back a primate exhilaration and freedom from pain lost for thousands of years.”
Not all intellectuals of the inter-war period in England shared this radical outlook. In an essay published in 1924, a Nietzsche scholar named Anthony Ludovici, who was an outspoken critic of Haldane’s progressive cohort, argued that ectogenesis would corrupt the biologically sanctioned roles that men and women were supposed to play. He argued that ectogenesis was the “complete realization of the desiderata implicit in body-despising values,” and claimed that artificial wombs would lead to the eradication of gender altogether. “With this final blow leveled at the corporeal equipment of sex,” he wrote, “triumphant Feminism will probably reach its zenith, and in a few generations a kind of woman will appear the only vestige of whose sex will be her smooth face and primary genital glands.”
More moderate thinkers also expressed concerns about the prospect of artificial wombs, though in a way that was not animated by the same virulent misogyny as Ludovici’s. In 1929, the English memoirist Vera Brittain wrote an essay suggesting that while ectogenesis might benefit some women, in the wrong hands, it could be misused. In particular, she imagined a genetically stratified future in which “laboratory-grown children… are selected from the best stock.” A similar anxiety was expressed by the Irish scientist John Bernal, who believed that “machine gestation” was inevitable but feared that it would be co-opted by oppressive forces who would use it to divide humanity into “altered and non-altered” subgroups.
Of course, concern about the intersection of ectogenesis and eugenics was most famously drawn out in Huxley’s Brave New World, which became the high-water mark in this decade-long public conversation about the future of pregnancy. Huxley, who moved in the same milieu as Haldane and Russell, was directly critiquing their earlier utopianism in his novel. One reviewer even suggested that Huxley’s book was a “revolution against Utopia.” If using science to replace women’s bodies with artificial contraptions had suggested liberation in the early 1920s, by the mid-1930s, as Europe lurched toward another world war, this utopianism was replaced by a fearful pessimism about what might happen when fascists take an interest in bio-technology and eugenics—a fear that was to play out with horrifying consequences in the following decade.
Despite Haldane’s prediction that full ectogenesis would be possible by 1951, progress towards artificial wombs was slow and sporadic in the decades after World War II. Interest in the broader moral and political ramifications of this speculative technology also subsided, with some exceptions. In 1970, the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone took up Haldane and Russell’s thesis in her book The Dialectic of Sex, arguing that the only way to achieve true equality between men and women is to outsource pregnancy to machines. Like Haldane and Russell before her, she began to conceive of the replacement of women’s bodies with artificial wombs as the basis for a radical and utopian political movement—a mechanically-mediated women’s liberation.
What Firestone added to the argument, though, was a stronger political inflection. Specifically, she maintained that the reason science had not made any significant in-roads towards building artificial wombs in the twentieth century was not because it was technically unachievable, but because the social and political ramifications would be too radical.
Firestone was making a broader point about how science and politics interact, pointing out that the type of research that is funded, the type of technology that is developed, often serves the interests of those in power. If the same resources that were put toward sending a man to the moon were put toward reproductive technologies, she said, artificial wombs would have already existed. “The problem becomes political,” she wrote, “when one realizes that, though man is increasingly capable of freeing himself from the biological conditions that created his tyranny over women and children, he has little reason to want to give this tyranny up.”
More than 50 years after Firestone wrote these words, and almost 100 years since Haldane gave his lecture, there is, at last, some progress in outsourcing some part of the gestation process to artificial means, with scientists and medical professionals across the globe working on improving artificial womb technology, in increasingly successful trials. In March 2019, a team of researchers from Australia and Japan demonstrated that they could support an extremely preterm lamb, the equivalent of a human baby at 24 weeks, in an artificial environment outside the womb for five days. “In the world of artificial placenta technology, we have effectively broken the four-minute mile,” research lead Dr. Matt Kemp said in a statement.
While full ectogenesis, as imagined by the English radicals of the 1920s, remains elusive, as these experiments progress, they will be met at every turn with moral consternation, if not panic. But, as Haldane put it: “There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.”