Podbabies and the Fruit of the Womb

Consider this a placeholder—no more than a gesture towards, and perhaps an enticement to, more extended and deeper thinking that needs to happen.

Mary Harrington has rapidly established herself as an indispensable aid to thinking about what it means to be human in the 2020s. I eagerly await the publication of her book in March. Recently, she wrote a short piece about the (as yet hypothetical) possibility of baby factories, in which babies are grown in AI-controlled artificial wombs. I would encourage you to read the piece, and watch the video, which suggests that artificial wombs—and with them the possibility of mass gestation of humans in factories—are close at hand. But keep a mug of soothing peppermint tea to hand.

The video is produced by the science communicator Hashem Al-Ghaili, and presents a dystopian vision of pain-free, efficient, technologically assisted reproduction. In an imaginary factory, with the aesthetics of an aseptic and brightly lit Matrix, babies that have been conceived through IVF gestate in ‘growth pods’, regulated by AI. The vision is, apparently, altruistic: an aid to those who have had their wombs surgically removed due to cancer, and to countries suffering severe population decline. It promises to make premature births and the pain of childbirth things of the past. It will eliminate the ‘need’ for surrogacy and the fear of complications during pregnancy. 

Haptic suits that simulate the baby’s movements will mean that mothers—and other family members!—can still experience the pleasures of pregnancy. The babies will be able to hear music, and their parents’ voices, through internal speakers in the pods. On their phones, parents will receive time-lapse footage of the development of their child. Thus, it is implied, by removing the child from its natural environment in a mother’s womb, the bonding experience of parents and babies will paradoxically be improved. And, of course, because the process begins with conception via IVF, there will be opportunities to select genetically superior embryos, and customise babies via genetic engineering to eliminate hereditary genetic diseases and ‘provide you with an intelligent offspring that truly reflects your smart choices’.

In her critique, Harrington rightly observes that when it comes to questions surrounding emerging biotechnologies, it always pays to ask how they will affect the most powerless—in this case the babies. She warns of the risk of ‘a potential infinite wave of motherless children’, due to the way that the biophysical process of gestation ‘doesn’t just create a baby; it creates a mother’. She also points to the way that surrogacy in Ukraine has led to many unclaimed babies, and to the rejection of disabled surrogate babies, and suggests this gives a glimpse of a dystopian future full of unwanted ‘podbabies’. With chilling echoes of Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting novel Never Let Me Go, she suggests:

Cheapen gestation and attenuate motherhood still further with a mass-production model, and it’s easy to imagine human life, thus manufactured without motherly love, becoming so cheap as to be worthless. In such a world, motherless babies might be manufactured and warehoused for medical experimentation or the transplant industry, for example, or raised as expendable fodder for the military, for unpleasant or low-status occupations or simply as a slave class. 

Harrington’s analysis chimes with observations made nearly forty years ago by Oliver O’Donovan, in his small masterpiece, Begotten or Made?[1] O’Donovan distinguishes begetting from making. Begetting is a natural act, which produces something of like nature with the begetter. In contrast, making is an act of the will, and the product of making is, by nature, something less than its maker. As a product of the human will, something made is also subject to human intentions. This means that rather than being gifts to be received with openness and joy, as equal members of the family and human community, when children are subjected to the logic of making, they are subtly commodified. They become the objects of their parents’ intentions, projects of human desires and decisions. 

We should not miss that, in the vision of Al-Ghaili’s factory of growth pods, the natural, organic logic of human begetting has been colonised by the techno-logic of human creating. In this vision, even children who are wanted and valued by their parents have been unnaturally subjected to patterns of parental desire, choice and making. This cannot undo the underlying ontological reality, which is that these children would still be human creatures of God, and therefore possessing by right the dignity of his image-bearers. Nevertheless, it seems certain that their deprivations in relation to the rest of us would be great.

It is, however, important not to miss one revealing moment in Mary Harrington’s article, which sheds light on the entire question and how we got to where we are. Having observed the need to consider the most powerless, she writes that ‘it’s hard to think of any class of human that, in absolute terms, has less social and economic capital—in other words, is more vulnerable—than a newborn baby’. 

I would suggest that further thought might well reveal a more vulnerable class of human: humans entirely at the whim of the social and economic forces that have shaped parents, doctors, governments, employers, journalists for several generations in the West. A class of human that has the grave misfortune to inconvenience those with greater power and more firmly realised social and economic desires. A class of human who are also babies, but who are routinely deprived even of the dignity of that name to better facilitate their removal from the human community. This may simply have been an oversight on Harrington’s part, or perhaps a practical decision that she did not want the argument of this piece derailed by other—highly controversial—debates. It may even have been a subtle prompt to that further thought. She has, after all, argued clear-headedly—and bravely, given that it was published in a British secular news outlet—that there is a feminist case against abortion.

However, recognising the vulnerability of babies in utero enables us to grasp that the logic of sanitised and carefully controlled baby factories is, at root, a technologically empowered extension of the reproductive logic that has governed western societies since at least the 1960s. At its root lies the contraceptive revolution (and the myth of widely available, cheap and ‘reliable’ contraception), the normalisation of divorce and sex outside of marriage, abortion on an industrial scale, and the availability of highly sophisticated methods of reproduction by technological artifice, such as IVF. The consequence of this constellation of factors is that the organic link between stable marriages, sexual intercourse, and the conception, gestation, and nurture of children has been ripped apart. Even the conception of children by natural means, within the marital relationship, and with no technological intervention, has become a matter purely of parental desire and decision—at least in our collective imagination. Something that could not be more natural has become a shared project of parental will. The mass extermination of unwanted children is merely the darkest conclusion of this logic.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis warned that the mastery of humans over themselves (and, in this case, over our reproductive capabilities) will inevitably mean the mastery of some humans over other humans.[2] This much seems to be true. But it is important also to heed O’Donovan’s warning that Lewis’s analysis was a little too neat: Lewis’s fictional version of his insight in That Hideous Strength relies rather too strongly on the myth of the mad scientist as originator of this power. Rather, as O’Donovan astutely observes, scientists usually begin by providing us what we, as a society, already want, and are willing to warrant.[3]

We want an easy existence, as pain-free as possible, in which children are objects of a freely chosen and carefully defined project of parenthood—convenient bringers of parental pleasure, and desirable extensions of parental achievement. And we have proved willing to sacrifice those (millions of) children unfortunate enough to fall foul of the choices and desires of adults—parents, medical professionals, businesses, economies, governments. Modern Western societies appear not to want the pain, worry, inconvenience and responsibility that children bring, but do most definitely want unlimited sexual pleasure, unrestricted freedom, and ceaseless economic opportunity and growth.

For all our sophistication, the recent history of the West has been a woeful descent into the mire. Technologically we are rich; we have grown wealthy; soon, we hope, we will need nothing. We do not realise we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. Like pagan Rome—with its supreme technique and power, its underclass of barely-human slaves, and its unwanted infants exposed to die on rubbish heaps—our only hope lies in a different understanding of ourselves, a different way of being human, a different power, and a different salvation from our weakness, frailty, suffering and death. 

Ironically, we need a baby who was conceived in an extraordinary way, but in the womb of a very ordinary woman.

The incarnation of the Son of God reveals, in stark contrast to our technological sophistication, the real meaning and dignity of our frail, mortal flesh, and with it, the real meaning and dignity of the womb.

The incarnation is the unique and unrepeatable personal union of a particular instantiation of human nature with the Son of God, as the man Jesus of Nazareth. However, when the Word took on our frail human flesh, he dignified not only that particular instantiation of human nature, but also human nature itself. In partaking of the flesh and blood in which all humans share, God’s Son ennobled all human flesh and blood. Every human person shares the same nature, body and soul, with the once humiliated, now exalted God-man Jesus Christ. Not that our bodies and souls are numerically identical with him: we are each distinct and unique instantiations of our common human nature. But essences are real, and so there is a real identity between the human nature subsisting in the Son and that subsisting as each of us. 

We can apply the same logic, mutatis mutandis, to the womb. By assuming our flesh from his mother, and, specifically, in her womb, the Word of God sanctified the Virgin’s womb to be a temple for God himself. The Virgin had, in Donne’s unforgettable lines, ‘Light in dark, and shutt’st in little room / Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb /…Weak enough, now into our world to come’. The virgin conception and birth of the Lord Jesus by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit was a unique and unrepeatable event. But it also revealed a deep truth about the female form of human nature—that the womb could become, by the grace of God, a fitting place for God himself to dwell. Cursed in the fall, filled with seed in the unfolding of the covenant of grace, the womb had been created by God so that in the incarnation it could bear the Son of God on his entrance into the world. In this way, the incarnation revealed the dignity of the wombs of all those who are mothers, and all who are in principle potential mothers (that is to say, all girls and women who have ever lived and will ever live).[4] Whatever its technological sophistication, however great an improvement it might seem, an artificial ‘womb’ can never compete with the beauty and dignity of the real thing in the good purposes of God.

The incarnation reveals the goodness of our frail and mortal flesh. But we remain consumed with overwhelming desires—for happiness and life, to be freed from pain and struggle and uncertainty. And yet, frail mortals that we are, we remain powerless to achieve the things for which we long. And so we look to mediators to liberate us from limitations and to empower us to achieve our desires. In the modern world, these mediators are primarily technological. Yet, as Augustine observed about the gods of pagan Rome, our mediators deceive us. The help they promise to wretched human beings is deceptive.[5] For their diagnosis of our condition is wrong, and so the help they offer fails. Rather than liberating us, our lust for domination has enslaved us to techno-logics that alienate us from our true selves.

The Mediator we need is the eternal Son and Word of God, who is Life and Light, unlimited, unchanging, free of pain, utterly at peace in the tranquility and eternal bliss of the Triune life, but who assumed frail flesh to dwell among us and to raise us to his life.

Augustine again:

[T]he good and true Mediator showed that it is sin that is evil, not the substance or nature of the flesh, which, along with the human soul, could be assumed and maintained without sin, and could be laid aside at death and changed into something better by resurrection. He also showed that death itself, although it is the penalty of sin, a penalty that he himself paid for us without sin, is not something to be avoided by committing sin but rather something to be endured, if the occasion arises, for righteousness’s sake…We were men, but we were not righteous; in his incarnation, however, there was human nature, but it was righteous, not sinful. This is the mediation by which a helping hand is stretched out to those who lie fallen and prostrate.[6]

Technologies designed on a human scale can serve us well. But our technological imaginations have burst their banks, promising solutions to all our ills, and lives free from pain and limitation.  Yet our problem is moral, not technological. We are not biological machines needing repair and upgrade. We are sinners needing the consoling presence of our God and his goodness. 

Our need is not to escape from the limitations of our flesh in this life (including its reproductive limitations). We need our sins— including our reproductive sins—to be cleansed, and God’s wrath to be satisfied. The Mediator we need is the Son of God, conceived and born of a woman. He assumed our flesh in order to be weak enough to die our death, the punishment of sin. And then, because the One who died our death is Life himself, he rose in that flesh gloriously transformed, to everlasting life. Only this Mediator can stretch out his helping hand to sinners, fallen and prostrate—a hand filled with life, a hand that liberates forever from all frustration, weakness, suffering and tears.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947).

[3] O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, 8-9.

[4] The qualifier ‘in principle’, and the underlying metaphysical realism of my argument—the assumption that essences are real—should be noted. Precisely because they instantiate the female form of our common human nature, all women, even those who are in fact unable to bear children for whatever reason, are, in principle, potential mothers.

[5] Augustine, The City of God, Books 1-10, trans. William S. Babcock (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012), X.24.

[6] City of God, X.24.