Artificial Wombs Aren't the Answer to Work-Life Balance Issues
In Slate, Reihan Salam says he doesn’t endorse artificial wombs (the scientific term is “ectogenesis”), but he believes that men will have to care about child-rearing more, and women will have to care about it less to achieve true gender equality at work: "The powerful, feeling-filled bond between a mother and her child is a big part of what leads working mothers to take their child-rearing responsibilities more seriously than working fathers. If this essential difference is the problem, if it is the root of gender equality in the workplace, and if our highest priority is to eliminate gender inequality, then ectogenesis offers a way forward."
On io9, Annalee Newitz believes artificial wombs are a transformational technology because they will do away with expensive fertility treatments, slow the ticking of the biological clock, and help women avoid dangerous pregnancies. “Women and men would be liberated from having to use (and often abuse) women's bodies to make cute little humans.”
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I’ll take these arguments one at a time. I don’t believe that if women no longer gestated children that would nudge us all toward a positive kind of equality. While some women might get further at the job if they didn’t have to give birth, we’d be devaluing care even more than we already do. American companies give people maternity leave, in part, because they are recovering from childbirth. If they’re not even having the kids, they might be in the same position as men: Only 10-15 percent of them even get paid paternity leave. Since paid parental leave is not mandated in the U.S. in the first place, companies will have even less incentive to give leave to new parents. The picture might be more “balanced” if no one got good leave, but it wouldn’t be balanced in a positive way.
The argument that we’d be liberated from expensive fertility treatments doesn’t quite add up. Is an artificial womb going to be cheap? As the futurist and philosopher Zoltan Istvan wrote in Vice's Motherboard of the technology: “Every heartbeat, kick, and moment of a fetus's life could be carefully monitored, from zygote to the moment the baby takes its first breath of air. Every nutrient the fetus gets would be measured, every movement it makes would be filmed, every heartbeat would be analyzed for proper timing.” Right now, hospital births in the United States cost $3,500. The costs of monitoring a growing baby for nine months in this fashion would be astronomical.
And again, we run into the same problem of massively devaluing care. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that many people who could afford to use artificial wombs, did. Then women who chose to or had to bear children the old-fashioned way would be even more of an underclass than they already are. Let’s say their employers pay for artificial wombs, à la Apple and Facebook, and then we come to the same problem as with egg freezing. If you didn’t choose to do this, would you be seen as less devoted to your career? That doesn’t exactly sound like liberation to me.
In io9, Newitz does concede that it’s not just pregnancy that makes it difficult for women to succeed in the upper echelons in the way men do. It’s child care. She suggests, in all caps, “CHILD CARE FOR EVERY WOMAN AT EVERY COMPANY.” That would be a huge boon, for sure, and I’d love to see that happen. But I think the problem has more to do with inflexible working hours. It wouldn’t help me, as a mom, if my kid were in child care from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. That means someone would be caring for my child, but I would never get to see her. And what if the kid gets sick? Or there’s some kind of behavioral problem and day care kicks them out? The solution here is not for companies to just throw expensive perks at parents, or to prevent them from having children when it’s “inconvenient” for business. The solution is to acknowledge that everyone—not just parents—has a personal life. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice the entirety of it just to be seen as good at their jobs.
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