Most people who have experienced pregnancy have likely at some point had a thought, however fleeting, that they wish someone – or something – else could take over for a while and grow their baby. Maybe it was on a day when their back was especially sore, or their ankles especially swollen. Maybe they’d had one too many anxious moments about their body’s ability to carry out this complex task. Maybe they just really, really, really wanted to be able to eat soft cheeses again.
Even the easiest pregnancy has its challenging moments, but a pregnant person wanting to outsource their labour is the emptiest kind of fantasy – the technology required to make that happen simply doesn’t exist. But it soon will, if a recent study that saw the successful gestation of a lamb fetus is anything to go by. Claire Horn, in her debut work, Eve: The Disobedient Future of Birth, explores what the advent of artificial wombs might mean for humanity.
Horn is a postdoctoral research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Health Justice Institute at the Schulich School of Law, and much of her work to date has focused on law and policy governing reproduction. And while Eve does explore the potential social impact of ectogenesis – the growth of an embryo or fetus in an artificial environment – it’s in the discussion of the legal aspect of the technology that Horn’s work really shines.
Her examination of what artificial wombs could mean for the future of abortion is particularly interesting, especially when she considers how it could change the definition of personhood. Currently the Canadian Criminal Code states that “a child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother,” so if a fetus has the potential to be moved from a human uterus to an artificial one and be gestated there, what will that mean for the legality of abortion? It’s a thorny, challenging topic, but one that Horn navigates with skill and care.
Horn also delves into the history of artificial womb technology, beginning with the incubator in the late 19th century – something so ubiquitous in the modern hospital that many people might not realize just how radical a device it really is. From there, she traces a path through the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, and the ways in which ectogenesis (a term coined by J.B.S. Haldane, who described himself as a “reform eugenicist”) was initially seen by advocates as the ideal way to control reproduction. That historical background serves as the launching pad to explore twin issues: the fact that artificial wombs have the potential to be life-saving, and the fact that medicine is still deeply biased about which lives deserve to be saved.
Eve is full of excellent research related in accessible language. At times, however, the text can be dry and clinical. Readers might find themselves wanting more of a narrative, for example, about the use of incubators as a sideshow at Coney Island in the first half of the 20th century, or the forced sterilization of women deemed “unfit” to be mothers, or even the story of “Jane Roe,” a complicated figure if there ever was one – it would be useful to get a greater sense of the human impact, the personal experiences of those circumstances. But that’s a minor quibble, and overall Horn has produced a fascinating and fact-packed book.