Early Ectogenesis: Artificial Wombs in 1920s Literature

DailyDose_PosterToday we re-post a favorite (and very unusual) theme: ectogenesis–artificial wombs! Surely a science fiction idea? Certainly! And yet, there are strange affinities with science fact! In celebration of the first CONVERSATION series lecture (“Hard Labor” birth in the 19th century and today), we give Dr. Yuko’s blog post! Interested in joining us for the inaugural lecture? Register today (space is limited!)

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mlab-99-01-07-f01
Tab IIII Casserius Tables, 1627

While the concept of artificial wombs may seem futuristic, the idea of creating a human being outside of a woman’s body is hardly novel.

In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus provided a formula with which to create a “homunculus” – an artificial man with no soul – in womb outside of a woman’s body.[1] This formula involves sealing a man’s semen in the womb of a horse for 40 days (or until it begins to live, move and can easily be seen), and then nourishing it daily with human blood for 40 weeks until it becomes a human infant resembling those born of a woman, only significantly smaller.[2]

The term “ectogenesis” – the gestation of human embryos in artificial circumstances outside a human uterus – was coined in 1923 by J.B.S. Haldane in his essay entitled Daedalus, or Science and the Future.[3] In his work, Haldane lists what he believes to be the six most important biological discoveries ever made. The list includes four discoveries “made before the dawn of history”: (1) the domestication of animals, (2) the domestication of plants, (3) the domestication of fungi for the production of alcohol, and (4) the altered path of sexual selection (that is, the shift to women’s faces and breasts as objects of men’s attention and attraction).[4] The remaining two biological discoveries cited by Haldane did not yet exist: bactericide, and the artificial control of conception.[5]

Haldane proceeds to provide a fictional essay written by an undergraduate student 150 years in the future (the year 2073), in which the student describes the birth of the first ectogenic child, which Haldane envisions would take place in 1951.[6] He then states that ectogenesis is “now universal,” and that in England, more than 70% of babies are born via artificial wombs.[7] Though he laments the demise of the “former instinctive cycle” of reproduction due to ectogenesis, he concedes that “it is generally admitted that the effects of selection have more than counterbalanced these evils.”[8]

Following Haldane’s publication, five additional works were published over a six-year period specifically responding to concepts found in Daedalus on topics such as ectogenesis and the separation of sexuality from reproduction; the benefits for society and the individual of scientific control of human nature; and the notion that humans’ biological and social behaviours were not natural, but naturalized.[9]

In Lysistrata, or Women’s Future and Future Women (1924), Nietzsche scholar Anthony Ludovici argues that ectogenesis is a feminist plot to escape not only pregnancy and reproduction, but also women’s domestic role, and potentially men themselves.[10] On the contrary, in his book entitled Hymen, or the Future of Marriage (1927), sexologist Norman Haire accepted ectogenesis as a way to liberate women from pregnancy, and to assist those who are unable to gestate.[11]

Despite his call to eliminate the biological family, socialist physician Eden Paul rejected ectogenesis in his essay entitled Chronos, or the Future of the Family (1930), insisting that women cannot be freed from pregnancy, at least in the foreseeable future, and considers the interuterine stage of gestation to be crucial for both the mother and child.[12] Likewise, in Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy (1929) pacifist novelist Vera Brittain rejected ectogenesis, except as a last resort, claiming that the use of artificial wombs would jeopardize the welfare of the ectogenic children.[13]

Finally, in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929) X-ray crystallographer and molecular biologist J.D. Bernal contended that ectogenesis would be beneficial as it would replace imperfect human bodies with machines.[14] (Machines and human bodies had been linked at least since Rene Descartes and materialist Le Mettrie in the 17th century).

This literary debate took place primarily in the To-day and To-morrow book series – which includes the six aforementioned publications – and occurred within the context of some of the most prominent social concerns and fascinations of the 1920s: feminism and the role of women, and the movement for sexual reform.[15] Several works of popular fiction followed – most notably, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) – that predict utopian or dystopian worlds of the future that include ectogenesis.

Our greater understanding of the complexities of the human gestation process has, in a way, only made the development and clinical use of artificial wombs seem even more futuristic than they seemed in Haldane’s time, and are likely to remain in the imagination and consciousness of the public as they have for nearly 100 years.

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As Dr. Yuko’s post makes clear, the thought of reproduction outside the human body continues to influence culture, literature, and even practice. My own work looks at the birthing machines of the 18th century, and the fears of human replacement that resonated through the industrial revolution, and still today. From an article on the Japanese artificial womb appeared just this past October, to the recent movie Ex Machina to be released in April 2015, we continue to query the possibilities (and ethics) of man, mother, and machine.

ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist at the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and is the founding and senior editor of Ethics & Society.

REFERENCES

[1] Scott Gelfand, “Introduction” in Ectogenesis: Artificial Womb Technology and the Future of Human Reproduction, ed. Scott Gelfand (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 3.

[2] Auroleus Phillipus Theophrastus Bombastus von Honenheim, aka Paracelsus, “Concerning the Nature of Things” in The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, Vol. 1, ed. Arthur E. Waite (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1967), 124.

[3] J.B.S. Haldane, Daedalus, or Science and the Future (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Susan Merrill Squier, Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 66.

[10] Anthony Ludovici, Lysistrata, or Women’s Future and Future Women (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924). See also Rosemarie Tong, “Out of Body Gestation: In Whose Best Interests?,” in Ectogenesis: Artificial Womb Technology and the Future of Human Reproduction, ed. Scott Gelfand and John R. Shook (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 62-63.

[11] Norman Haire, Hymen, or the Future of Marriage (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1927). See also Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[12] Eden Paul, Chronos, or the Future of the Family (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1930). See also Aline Ferreira, “The Sexual Politics of Ectogenesis in the To-day and To-morrow Series,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 34 (2009): 42; Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[13] Vera Brittain, Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929). See also Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[14] J.D. Bernal, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1930). See also Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[15] Ferreira, “Sexual Politics,” 33; Squier, Babies in Bottles, 68.

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