BY REBECCA SHERLOCK, PhD STUDENT, CRITICAL MEDIA LAB
This semester’s talk was nothing short of honest dialogues, as we explored the topic of reproductive technologies, artificial wombs, and the disobedient future of birth with Dr. Claire Horn, a Killam postdoctoral research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Health Law Institute (keep an eye out for her book EVE: The Disobedient Future of Birth, forthcoming in North America in September 2023).
Dr. Horn began her talk by explaining the role of ectogenesis technologies (artificial wombs) in extending gestation — not to be confused with pregnancy — outside of the body past the 21-23 weeks mark to lower the rate of infant mortality. Arguing that the technology itself is neither “good” nor “bad” and remains neutral until its application, Dr. Horn explored several critical questions about this technology to root in a closer-to-reality exploration of its implications to society, policy, and healthcare by evaluating and questioning our perspectives, values, and ideologies of reproductive justice in our current technological context surrounding childbirth, families, gender, IVF, surrogacy, adoption, abortion, and so on.
Dr. Horn was joined by Dr. Alana Cattapan and Margaret Mutumba in a discussion (facilitated by Marcel O’Gorman) around these considerations and implications. Alana Cattapan is the Canada Research Chair in the Politics of Reproduction and studies gendered inclusion in policy making related to reproduction, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, and reproductive labour. Margaret Mutumba is a PhD Candidate in Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo who is currently focused on equitable access to fertility care in low-resource contexts, having overseen management of fertility hospitals in Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
While acknowledging the benefits this technology could have to specific individual experiences with infertility, Margaret Mutumba challenged the accessibility of artificial wombs with the provocation that low-income access to this technology would be unrealistic. If the development of this technology were to follow the pattern of behavior where it was developed in wealthy, western worlds, it is likely that challenges and design constraints like low access to electricity volumes and consistent uptime, clean and sterile water access, similar or like facilities, would not be considered. In Mutumba’s words, “the cultural context [of artificial wombs or ectogenesis] will define the application of the technology.” This is a point applicable to many technologies. To paraphrase our panelists: the technology is neutral, its application will determine its intent; whether that be to control and remain in power or to facilitate access to a technology that could advance society and support shared goals of responsible innovation or something else entirely.
Another topic of discussion was the medicalization of birth. The panel explored the space and distance that has been increasing for (traditionally) female communities from the journey of pregnancy and the act of giving birth. Mutumba shared the experience of birth in Uganda as being traditionally very community-driven, where birth was/can be a shared experience and pregnancy guided by elder females within the community in a very intimate way. From here, Dr. Horn, Mutumba, and Cattapan shifted into conversation about the role and evolution ofm idwifery in a Western context. Ultimately, leading to the observation that artificial wombs remove the role of a partner or of community (of all gender identities and family compositions) altogether. Potentially, then creating the most possible distance from birth and pregnancy; leaving us to ask the question: is this pregnancy at all or is this solely gestation? Or, perhaps to explore larger questions about whether or not advances in technology have considered our current use of language. What might we need to understand or to evolve in our language use and semiotics to evolve with research and application of ectogenesis technologies?
In 90 minutes we couldn’t have possibly explored every topic that came to our collective minds. I still want to ask Dr. Horn what the role of the term “Eve” is in her work (I guess I’ll have to wait September to read the book). Still thinking of Dr. Horn’s call to evaluate speculative or on-the-horizon technologies in the context of our current society, I wonder: what can we learn from current surrogacy laws across different cultures and different countries to inform policy about ectogenesis? Is that even the right approach? How do we include the varied and necessary perspectives, cultures, and voices in the conversations of birth, fertility, and family-making? How do we humanize such conversation? Are we appropriately representing the values we should consider that will be carried through the many potential applications of these technologies?
It is challenging to bring the concept of values into the dialogue of reproduction and fertility because it is such a unique journey for individuals, for couples, for families, that requires such intimate context to explore in depth. I applaud Dr. Horn, Cattapan, and Mutumba for stressing that it is important to talk about these technologies before they exist to begin these honest (and often difficult) conversations about topics like consent, parenthood, family, justice, and care that follow reproductive technologies; and thereby, policy and law. Thank you for such a critically important conversation.
Couldn’t join us live? Rewatch now: Recording of Artificial Wombs Critical Tech Talk.
Produced by the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo, Critical Tech Talks is a series of honest dialogues about technological innovation. From data harvesting to the conflict minerals in our smartphones, critical thinking is shifting the momentum towards positive change – towards Tech for Good®. Each of the university’s six faculties will co-host a techno-critical speaker and invite Waterloo students and local tech sector members to participate in an on-stage dialogue and lead a post-event discussion online. The series is sponsored by Communitech, the Office of Research at the University of Waterloo, and the faculties of Arts, Environment, Engineering, Health, Math, and Science.