Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The societal consequences of the prosthetic womb in Helen Sedgwick’s ‘The Growing Season’

Imagining a world where reproductive technology has evolved to popularise prosthetic wombs, Helen Sedgwick’s ‘The Growing Season’ toes the line between utopia and dystopia and prompts urgent reflection on questions of equality in our own rapidly developing society.

Sedgwick’s speculative fiction effectively flips Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on its head, bringing together strands of feminist thought on sex and gender to consider what would happen if those of us with wombs were emancipated from our reproductive burdens. A new ‘baby pouch’ is provided by FullLife, a glossy for-profit private company with an ominous Intercap that instantly screams ‘Black Mirror-esque baddie’. This groundbreaking technology enables pregnancies to occur through ectogenesis (the incubation of fetuses outside a human for the full duration of a pregnancy) and thus enabling us to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of our biological differences.

The shiny successes of the pouch are immediately evident. Queer couples, single people, those medically unable to conceive, are all able to become parents with the aid of this new technology; couples are permitted to share equally the joys and burdens of pregnancy; no longer restrained by the need to take maternal leave, women can uncompromisingly pursue further education or career aspirations, their opportunities unrestrained by their ‘biological clocks’. Societal attitudes subsequently shift, with both sex and gender ceasing to be an obstacle to anyone in life. Supposedly, everyone wins.

As the narrative flits between the first trials of the prosthetic womb and present day, where the ‘pouch’ has become popularised throughout society, it is undeniable that the impetus behind such experiments were inspired by the rhetoric of Shulamith Firestone, whose 1970 novel ‘The Dialect of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution’ became a classic text of the second-wave feminist movement. Within it, Firestone asserts that modern society could not achieve true gender equality until women’s biological traits are separated from their identity; in theory, FullLife provides the technology to enable the evolution of society along these lines. This is certainly reflected in the hopes of Holly Bhattacharya, a young woman who is the first to donate her eggs for the first human trial of the ‘pouch baby’; in a rebuttal of her parents’ sexist expectations, she is astute that “If equality was to be achieved, the physiology, the biology, had to evolve.” Certainly, from the heralded successes of the pouch, it could be speculated that essentially removing the process of childbirth from the conventional female life trajectory has the potential to alleviate entrenched societal, cultural and economic inequalities. 

However, there are certainly more insidious undertones to Sedgwick’s world which we would do well to heed. The framing of the baby pouch as an alternative to abortion (women who become unwillingly pregnant can have the feotus transferred to a pouch) in order to pacify religious opposition results in children’s homes overburdened to breaking point. Simultaneously this rhetoric is an effective ‘full stop’ in the fight for full recognition of women’s reproductive and civil rights – although complications regarding existing abortion legislation are neglected from the book, this would undeniably place essential reproductive rights into a dangerous grey area.

FullLife also appears to have eclipsed and absorbed the obstetric services of the NHS, with public healthcare slipping silently into private annexation behind the success stories. Although it is claimed the pouch is “affordable for all”, lower-class couples appear to only access ‘second-hand pouches’, and an international black market is hinted at. Whilst this idea is only touched on in the novel, Claire Horn discusses the realities of artificial wombs and accessibility in her blog post, ‘Ectogenesis at Home?’: “The artificial womb, (…) is likely to be expensive and limited to use in highly equipped neonatal intensive care units. Global disparities in health outcomes for pregnant people and neonates, as well as racialized disparities in these outcomes within the wealthiest nations stand only to be increased by the introduction of this technology. In the pursuit of technologies widely perceived to be fundamentally positive, such as interventions to sustain prematurely born babies, access is too frequently an afterthought.” The result of neglecting such questions can result in irreversible consequences, as disparate access to this new technology clearly poses the possibility of exacerbating social inequality. 

We are also offered glimpses of the pouch as an extreme way for abusers to control women; a partner is able to carry the pouch and control every element of the pregnancy, capable of threatening damage to the pouch as a means of coercing their victim. This revelation is especially poignant through the perspective of the pouch’s initial creator, Freida. Upon presenting this information to the board of FullLife, the researcher finds herself dismissed and silenced. Her realisation that her creation has been released into a society ill-prepared for it and is now irreversibly out of her hands leaves a lasting impression.

Thus, whilst not detracting from the positive impacts of the pouch for many groups of people, there is certainly a lot to be said about this ‘quick fix’ for a plethora of complex and intertwined economic, legal and cultural issues. This notion of technology effectively ‘leap-frogging’ essential societal reforms is effectively epitomised by the novel’s main protagonist, Eva, one of the last remaining anti-pouch activists: “Instead of fearing the pain of childbirth (…) perhaps we should be celebrating the strength of women”.

The undercurrent of unease threading throughout the book consistently enforces this idea that whilst this invention may smooth a sheen over the messy, painful and inconvenient elements of childbirth, it effectively leaves a number of entrenched attitudes, behaviours and social structures of inequality to fester. 

Whilst these rather ominous undertones do not formulate the main impetus for the narrative, which instead focuses on faults with the technology itself, in reality they may manifest into more than theoretical experiments; since ‘The Growing Season’ was published in 2017, some striking developments have been made in reproductive technology. The same year, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia successfully trialed a ‘biobag’ which has the capacity to keep lambs alive that were born at the equivalent of 23 weeks of human pregnancy. More recently, in October 2019 scientists from Eindhoven University of Technology announced that they were within 10 years of developing an artificial womb that could save the lives of premature babies. Such technology would be groundbreaking; 15 million babies are born before 37 weeks every year, half of whom don’t survive. The researchers have since been given a €2.9m (£2.6m) grant to develop a working prototype for use in clinics.

Whilst full ectogenesis is still a big leap from present stage of development, these innovations and the ethical concerns surrounding them certainly imply a trajectory not so dissimilar to that of FullLife and its baby pouch. Consequently, as our own reality draws closer to that of Sedgwick’s speculations, the need for preemptive legislative, social and cultural change becomes ever-more pressing.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles