Throughout most of human history women have been defined by their biological role in reproduction, seen first and foremost as gestators, which has led to the reproductive system being subjected to outside interference. The womb was perceived as dangerous and an object which husbands, doctors and the state had a legitimate interest in controlling. In this article, we consider how notions of conflict surrounding the womb have endured over time. We demonstrate how concerns seemingly generated by the invisibility of reproduction and the inaccessibility of the womb have translated into similar arguments for controlling women, as technology increases the accessibility of the female body and the womb. Developments in reproductive medicine, from in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to surrogacy, have enabled women and men who would otherwise have been childless to become parents. Uterus transplants and ‘artificial wombs’ could provide additional alternatives to natural gestation. An era of ‘womb technology’ dawns. Some argue that such technology providing an alternative to ‘natural’ gestation could be a source of liberation for female persons because reproduction will no longer be something necessarily confined to the female body. ‘Womb technology’, however, also has the potential to exacerbate the labelling of the female body as a source of danger and an ‘imperfect’ site of gestation, thus replaying rudimentary and regressive arguments about controlling female behaviour. We argue that pernicious narratives about control, conflict and the womb must be addressed in the face of these technological developments.
- interests of woman/fetus/father
- reproductive medicine
- embryos and fetuses
- social control of science/technology
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Contributors All authors contributed to the conception, planning and writing of this article. MRB wrote the section on historical background, DB and ECR wrote the section concerning contemporary technologies and ethical issues, AKM and ECR wrote the section on legal issues, DB and ECR wrote the section on reframing conflict and ECR wrote the section on ectogestation.
Funding This article is based on themes emerging at a symposium that was funded by the Institute of Medical Ethics. Work on artificial wombs by Elizabeth Chloe Romanis is supported by a Wellcome Trust Studentship in Society and Ethics (grant reference 208245/Z/17/Z).
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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