December 12, 2022 - 10:30am

Are artificial wombs close to realisation? A new concept video from science communicator Hashem Al-Ghaili claims as much. In the form of an advert for a fictional ectogenesis facility, ‘EctoLife’, the 8-minute video visualises a literal baby factory, in which 30,000 lab-grown babies a year are incubated in AI-controlled pods. During this period, their commissioning parents pipe the sound of their own voices to them via an app and experience their baby’s kicks via a ‘haptic suit’.

Such a facility could, the video suggests, make gestation easier, safer, and more convenient, but also allow a far greater degree of control over infant genetics. AI sensors would monitor growth for abnormalities, while genetic engineering at the fertilisation stage would enable commissioning parents to control hair, eye, and skin colour, eliminate genetic diseases and increase strength and intelligence.

Whether or not you think rich people should be entitled to edit their babies for eugenic reasons probably depends on how you view transhumanism more broadly. My hunch is that disagreements at this level are irreducible: whether you find the idea of genetically engineering your own offspring thrilling or viscerally repulsive is probably not amenable to persuasion either way.

But setting these disagreements aside, when thinking through the implications of biotechnologies that promise greater control of our embodied nature, it’s a good rule of thumb that downsides are easier to see when you imagine how they’d affect the powerless. And 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.

The paediatrician and pioneering psychotherapist Donald Winnicott famously observed, “There is no such thing as a baby; only a baby and someone.” That is: babies are radically vulnerable, and the only reason they survive at all is thanks to the care of loving parents. Most centrally, at the earliest stages, this is almost always a devoted loving mother.

Maternal devotion exists not just in humans but across species. Mothers of many different species, as well as humans, show a willingness to risk death to protect their offspring. A motherless infant is such an archetypally pitiable figure because most cultures grasp what a loss it is to grow up without that primary backstop of care, during the most vulnerable years. And the genesis of this visceral instinct is in the process of gestation itself: as Abigail Tucker shows in Mom Genes, the biophysical process of gestation creates radical neurological changes in a woman, which primes her for intense attunement and devotion to the newborn baby. In other words: gestation doesn’t just create a baby, it creates a mother.

What happens, then, if we develop the capacity to create babies without also creating mothers? At the top of the social hierarchy, the answer might well still be loving families; after all, the world is full of great dads, and devoted adoptive parents. And it’s also true, of course, that not every mother is attuned and devoted. Normatively, though, the pattern holds; maternal infanticide or cruelty is so shocking precisely because it’s so rare.

But when we talk about a facility that could manufacture 30,000 podbabies a year, without also manufacturing 30,000 mothers, we’re talking about a potentially infinite wave of motherless children, large numbers of which might have no ‘and someone’, as Winnicott put it. What might the fate of such infants be? We see a glimpse of this future in the dystopian images of rows of un-claimed surrogate babies tended by nannies in war-torn Ukraine, or the disabled surrogate babies rejected by their commissioning parents.

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.

A mother’s devotion to her baby is the template for our (wavering) belief that all human life has value. When we stop making mothers, we hack at the foundations of that value. Pity the factory-made infants, newborn and helpless in such a world.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.