The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Photo by Xerv_II/Thinkstock
The fact that only women can carry children is an enviable distinction, yet it is also a burden that can make it harder for working mothers to reach the pinnacle of their professions.

Photo by Xerv_II/Thinkstock

Sigmund Freud famously maintained that boys grow up with “castration anxiety,” or the fear of losing their penises, while girls suffer from “penis envy,” or a longing to have penises of their own. But what if pregnancy envy, not penis envy, has been the central driver of human history? Several years ago, feminist political scientist Jacqueline Stevens offered a fascinating, contrary theory of childhood sexual development that made exactly that point.

“Although each of us is born from a woman,” Stevens writes, “half of us are told that we are boys, and hence we will not be able to reproduce this feat.” This realization is so disturbing to boys that, according to Stevens, they spend much of their lives compensating for their inability to give birth. While the connection between a mother and child is visceral and direct, the one between a father and a child has long been mediated through kinship rules crafted by males anxious to assert their relevance and power. Men can’t give the gift of life to a child, so they obsess over what they can give: They can accumulate property, and they can pass it on to their heirs, regulating their behavior in the process.

Stevens suggests that our society is screwed up in large part because men have created myths, rituals, and laws that entrench their power as a way to compensate for a profound sense of inadequacy instilled early in life. Not everyone will embrace Stevens’ theory, I realize, and men in particular might consider it ungenerous. But I’ve always found it a useful framework for understanding traditional gender roles.

Now, however, we’re faced with a different landscape. In affluent societies at least, paternity uncertainty is a thing of the past, thanks to genetic testing and the Maury Povich Show. And while men continue to dominate our economic and social lives, that dominance is being contested. Among younger cohorts, women are pulling ahead of men in educational attainment, a disparity that is already having powerful social and economic consequences. A large and growing number of women are raising children without men, for whom the drive to accumulate property to pass on to their heirs has attenuated, if not vanished entirely. Roles that had once been limited to men, by law and customit was not so long ago that female doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers were vanishingly rareare now open to women, and women are excelling in them. They are excelling in them to such an extent that the opportunity costs associated with motherhood (the foregone wages, the lost productivity) are becoming unacceptably high not just for individual mothers, but for their employers.

These are new historical developments, and we’re still struggling to adapt to them. So, here’s a prediction: Instead of adapting our jobs to accommodate the demands of biology, we will adapt our biology to accommodate the demands of our jobs. The fact that only women can give the gift of life is an enviable distinction, yet it is also a burden that can make it harder for working mothers to reach the pinnacle of their professions. One way to ease this burden would be to move away from pregnancy as we know it and toward a reliance on artificial wombs.

For now, artificial wombs are the stuff of science fiction. Those of you who read Brave New World in high school will recall its chilling portrayal of the “Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre,” where vast numbers of identical children spring from the same genetic soup. If ectogenesis, a fancy word for the use of artificial wombs, ever happens in the real world, it will be a more banal next step from the technologies that already keep premature babies alive. Ectogenesis will start out as a way to allow older women to have children or to abet pregnancy for women who would otherwise be unable to carry children. Eventually, it will be considered safer to have children via ectogenesis than the old-fashioned way, and the practice will spread far and wide.

This all comes to mind in light of the latest news from Silicon Valley. Recently, Apple and Facebook, two of the most esteemed employers in America, agreed to finance egg-freezing coverage for their employees. This news has been met with a great deal of cynicism, from those who see it as “a hasty technological stopgap for a cultural problem” or a privatized pseudo-solution to a problem that ought to be addressed by government.

Egg freezing is far from foolproof, and I can see why some find the concept dismaying. There is something vaguely creepy about the notion that corporations are pushing women to delay childbearing until their 40s just so they can squeeze as much work out of them as possible. To some, this is proof that the Apples and Facebooks of the world are led by heartless capitalists who don’t care about women’s best interests, regardless of what their press releases claim.

But perhaps Silicon Valley is simply seeing the future before the rest of us do. Many talented female employees are balancing a desire to climb the corporate ladder with an unwillingness to foreclose the possibility of having children. The executives who’ve embraced the idea of paying for egg-freezing coverage are doing their best to meet the needs of these workers. That said, the fact that a growing number of working women are interested in the procedure is in itself an acknowledgment that it is difficult to combine child-rearing with the all-consuming, more-than-full-time professional work that we find in the uppermost echelons of the American economy.

As women and men begin their careers, the earnings gap between them is quite small when we control for hours and skill levels. Yet the pay gap grows dramatically with age. Why does the pay gap widen? While there are many factors to consider, it’s striking that women without children earn more than mothers, and the earnings of women without children are almost equal to those of men. Earlier this year, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin argued that a substantial part of this gender gap can be attributed to the fact that the most privileged and lucrative occupations are those that most generously reward those who put in long and inflexible hours. When you have to leave the office, when you can’t be on call, and when you take time off, your workplace runs less smoothly. For women who’ve spent years in a hypercompetitive company like Apple or Facebook, leaving for a year or two, or even downshifting to work fewer hours, isn’t an easy decision, as it can make a material difference in terms of how valuable you are to your employer.

Goldin observes that there are some elite professions that aren’t subject to this dynamic. Pharmacists tend to have more manageable hours, which has made the field more attractive to working mothers. Veterinary medicine has gone from being a male-dominated to a female-dominated profession, in part, it seems, because hours have grown more predictable in small veterinary practices. These professions evolved for a number of reasons, including a desire to reduce the high labor costs associated with long and erratic hours. But they also changed due to employee pressure. One possibility moving forward is that many other elite professions can evolve in this direction as workers demand change.

I don’t doubt that we’ll see some of this, particularly if such shifts save employers money. Yet the most elite jobs are also the least susceptible to change. “There will always be 24/7 positions with on-call, all-the-time employees and managers, including many CEOs, trial lawyers, merger-and-acquisition bankers, surgeons, and the U.S. Secretary of State,” writes Goldin. Apple and Facebook are keen to retain female employees who can take on these 24/7 positions, which don’t lend themselves to the kind of flexibility that parenting demands. And that is why they’re taking egg freezing seriously.

If our goal is to achieve gender equality, there is another obvious approach: Fathers could demand flexibility alongside mothers, and they could commit to devoting more time and effort to child-rearing. Even as working mothers face a wage penalty, working fathers enjoy a wage bonus, which is at least partly because working fathers rarely demand flexibility. So the solution is simple, right? Working fathers need to step up! I completely accept that this is true. (It helps that I have no children of my own.) But shifting attitudes in this direction will take longer than you think.

Even as single-parent and two-breadwinner families grow more common, 60 percent of Americans believe that children are better off when a parent stays at home, according to a Pew survey from earlier this year. In 2012, Pew found that while 37 percent of working mothers with children under 18 report that full-time work would be ideal for them and their families, 50 percent favored part-time work, and 11 percent would choose to stay at home full time if possible. Working fathers, meanwhile, placed a higher value on compensation than working mothers (40 percent versus 30 percent said that a high-paying job was extremely important to them), and they value flexibility far less (48 percent versus 70 percent). This helps explain why men are more likely than women to stick with 24/7, on-call, all-the-time positions that happen to pay particularly well and why the women who succeed in these jobs are so often childless. The share of American women ages 40 to 44 who’ve never had children now stands at 19 percent, one of the highest rates in the world.

And if we want to achieve gender equality by changing attitudes, it can’t just be male attitudes that change. Men will have to become more interested in spending time with their children, but women will also have to become less interested. If the miracle of childbirth is a central component of what bonds women to their offspring, and pregnancy envy is a force that drives men to accumulate wealth, outsourcing pregnancy might be the best solution. 

In August, Zoltan Istvan, author of The Transhumanist Wager, touted the potential benefits of artificial wombs for women, from the most obvious (“females would no longer have to solely bear responsibility for childbirth”) to the less obvious (“ectogenesis could unchain women from the home”). Even some of the criticisms of ectogenesis—that it will reduce the intimacy between mother and child—could be a good thing if your concern is that when it comes to raising children, the attitudes of women and men are too different. 

I should stress that I’m not endorsing ectogenesis. There are many good reasons to be wary of the concept. In “Why Not Artificial Wombs?”, Christine Rosen, a senior editor at the New Atlantis, quoted a warning from Rosemarie Tong, a feminist bioethicist: “I think the physicality and embodied nature of pregnancy is a real and material way for one generation to connect to the next. … Without that rootedness in the body, relationships between the generations become more abstract, less feeling-filled.”

I think Tong is probably right and that something essential would be lost if pregnancy becomes obsolete. Yet, artificial wombs still seem inevitable. 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.