UNBORN0X9: from homunculus to partial ectogenesis

UNBORN0X9: from homunculus to partial ectogenesis

UNBORN0X9: from homunculus to partial ectogenesis

An essay by Ewen Chardronnet

Read the booklet, consisting of this essay and an interview with Shu Lea Cheang, here in PDF.

"Ectogenesis will, in making the growth of the child directly visible, actually 'enhance rather than diminish the value we place on the fetus' - arguably, ultrasound imaging has already had an effect of that kind.

Philip Bal, Unnatural: The Heretic Idea of Making People (The Bodley Head, London, 2011)

It is now almost impossible to read about ectogenesis (gestation outside the body) in the press without an immediate introductory reference to the artificial wombs of the "hatcheries" in Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World (1932). The current technological context, however, goes far beyond the techno-scientific context and the ethical debate that led Huxley to write his novel 80 years ago. In her thesis in Law presented at the University of Manchester in 2020, "Regulating the 'Brave New World': Ethico-Legal Implications of the Quest for Partial Ectogenesis" [1], Elizabeth Chloe Romanis explores the legal framework implied by the emergence of "Perinatal Life Support" systems [2]  - or artificial wombs for the last phase of gestation of very premature babies — in relation to Huxley's "classical" vision of ectogenesis.

E.C. Romanis distinguishes between two types: complete ectogenesis, the “historical” vision of the artificial womb, and partial ectogenesis, which defines the technologies of “Perinatal Life Support”. She identifies three fundamental changes in our views of pregnancy that partial ectogenesis would bring about. The first change suggests that partial ectogenesis will have “the obvious benefit of saving the lives of babies born prematurely and reducing the suffering of women whose wanted pregnancies spontaneously abort by providing a means of continuing gestation artificially” [3]. The second also opens up the possibility that pregnant women who experience dangerous but wanted pregnancies “would no longer have to make a decision between continuing to carry their pregnancy at severe risk to themselves, delivering and risking their fetus facing bleak outcomes in neonatal intensive care or having an unwanted abortion” [4]. Finally, the third change would involve assuming ectopic gestation “as a tool in the emancipation of the female body and of maximising choices for females about how to use their body to reproduce by minimising the potential burdens of pregnancy. This argument is usually made in the context of complete ectogenesis” [5]. If this technology becomes a reality, its regulation will raise an exceptionally complex set of questions that the legal framework and medical ethics do not yet know how to answer.

Before going into the questions that this raises and the light that E.C. Romanis brings in her remarkable essay, I would like to return here briefly to the cultural history of anthropoeia, the artificial creation of humans [6]  and the ontological foundations of the UNBORN0X9 project.

Homunculi in alembics
The dream of creating “little humans” outside of women's bodies is not new. The product of an ex utero human entity is reminiscent of the homunculus (from the Latin, "little man"), the artificial human being that some alchemists sought to obtain in the Middle Ages [7]. Homunculi are most often described as imperfect and unfinished sketches, very small in size. The recipe for making a homunculus is given by Paracelsus (1493-1541), physician and alchemist, in his De natura rerum (I, 1, sect. 9) [8].

The homunculus of medieval European alchemy also has an antecedent in Islamic alchemy: it is the takwin, which is the artificial recreation of life in the laboratory [9]. Obtaining a takwin was the obsession of many Ismaili Muslim alchemists, including the legendary Jâbir Ibn Hayyân (who became known in Europe in the Middle Ages by the Latinised name of Geber) in the ninth century. His Book of Stones[10] includes several recipes for creating creatures such as scorpions, snakes and even humans in a laboratory environment, which are under the control of their creator.

The concept of the homunculus also echoes the theory of preformationism, which was very popular among medieval scholars to explain the development of the embryo. According to this theory, a man's sperm contains a miniature version of the unborn child (the homunculus), fully formed and functioning, but so small that it is invisible to the naked eye. The mother's uterus acts only as a receptacle, a "nest" in which the homunculus is deposited during the sexual act to develop and grow. The child's heredity therefore depends solely on the father, the mother merely playing the role of an 'incubator'. This reflects the desire of men to see themselves at the origin of all creation.

With the discovery of spermatozoa (for a long time called 'animalcules') in 1677 by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek [11], the theory of preformationism was popularised. Scientists such as Nicolas Hartsoeker asserted that the homunculus, a microscopic replica of the fetus, was housed in the head of the spermatozoon [12]. Some of them, like François de Plantade in 1699, even claimed to have succeeded in seeing it under the microscope [13]. The theory of preformationism gradually died out during the 19th century, with the rise of experimental embryology and the theory of evolution.

However, the idea of the alchemical homunculus lived on in literature, notably in Goethe's second Faust in 1832, where at the beginning of Act II, Wagner, Faust's former assistant, is busy alchemically creating a little man. Through Wagner's story, Goethe is certainly aiming at the presumption of power-ridden scientists.

The idea of gestation outside the body can also be found in the esoteric or scientific fantasy literature of the early twentieth century, but it was after the First World War that science began to seriously consider the possibility of the artificial womb.

UNBORN0X9 at MU Hybrid Art House, 2022. Image: Boudewijn Bollmann

Today and Tomorrow
The first real scientific mention of artificial wombs came about a hundred years ago, in 1923, when J.B.S. Haldane, a young British biologist and geneticist, was invited to give a lecture at the Heretics' Society at Cambridge University. The Society, founded in 1909, was not an occultist fraternity but rather a haven for progressive intellectuals to question traditional authorities and religious dogma. The English philosopher Charles Kay Ogden, its founder, who considered himself an “intellectual emancipator”, invited many intellectuals of the time and encouraged them to be non-conformist and provocative [14]. Ogden invited Haldane in a context of giving voice to “reformist” eugenicists in progressive or socialist circles seeking to reconcile the search for a revolutionary horizon, the defence of feminist claims and the advent of a “new human”, conceived on biological grounds.

Haldane's presentation to the Heretics' Society audience, entitled “Daedalus, or Science and the Future” [15], is written from the perspective of a student in 2073 writing about the advances in biology over the previous 150 years. Among other things, the student describes food and synthetic biology, assisted reproductive technologies, but also introduces the concept of ectogenesis, describing how, in 1951, two scientists extracted the ovaries of a woman who died in a plane crash, fertilised her eggs, and then brought the fetus to term in a "suitable fluid". In the world described in this essay, humans have completely ceased to procreate according to the "former instinctive cycle", allowing for a more rational and enlightened reproductive process, the complete gestation of a fetus outside the body, which Haldane calls "ectogenesis".

The text of the lecture was quickly circulated as the first of more than 150 short books published by Kegan Paul over the next eight years in the “To-day and To-Morrow” series, all discussing radical political and scientific ideas. In his essay, Haldane argues for ectogenesis as a prime example of how science could bring about radical social change: by freeing women from the necessity of pregnancy, sex and reproduction would be dissociated, which he argued would radically alter the power imbalance in society.

Most of Haldane's friends and interlocutors rejected ectogenesis, although they shared his techno-optimism, his criticism of the nuclear family and his eugenic concerns. Bertrand Russell responded to him the following year in his "Icarus, or The Future of Science" [16]  to remind us of the great risks of misuse of science.

Should women be freed from gestational “labour”?
The socialist and pro-sex feminist Dora Black Russell, secretary of the Heretics Society in 1918-1919 and then wife of Bertrand Russell, would respond to J.B.S. Haldane as well. In 1925 she wrote Hypatia, or Woman and Knowledge [17] in which she attacked the reduction of female sexuality to reproduction — in the context of an intensive campaign by Labour Party’s women for sexual reform and a policy of contraception and birth control — and defended an emancipatory conception of ectogenesis quite similar to that of J.B.S. Haldane. The very idea of artificial gestation would allow women to imagine a different social reality, she said, one in which they would not have to bear children and therefore would not be required to play a maternal role that kept them servile, confined to the home and out of the public sphere.

In 1927, Charlotte Franken Haldane — who married J.B.S. Haldane after meeting him at the Heretics' Society — published the science fiction dystopia Man's World [18] which depicts a future ruled by an elitist caste of male scientists who have organised the production of infants as a specific industry. This caste is guided by an ideology that controls and limits the number of female births [19]. Young women living in this world can become “professional mothers”, otherwise they are sterilised and become “neuters”. Scientists reveal to mothers that research is underway, using livestock, to enable in vitro fertilisation and ectogenetic pregnancy, thus beginning the process of the total eradication of the professional motherhood industry [20].

In her book Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy [21] (1929), the feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain proposes a candid vision of the future of monogamous marriage through the story of a fictitious Professor Huxterwin living 100 years in the future. In Brittain's book, ectogenesis is first performed in 1971. "Only twenty years after Haldane's predicted date, an ectogenetic child was successfully raised through the embryonic stages and brought to "birth" in Monet's laboratory. Unmindful of the worldwide ecclesiastical furore unleashed by this triumph, leading ectogeneticists in England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States immediately set about breeding embryonic children supplied by a small but slowly growing number of cooperative parents." [22] While in his account ectogenesis proved perfectly safe and feasible, it is abandoned, Brittain pointing out that "the complete divorce of sexual relations from their consequences was never considered desirable, because of a risk that it might in time lead to the demolition of the human race" [23] and in this sense not being in favour of ectogenesis, mainly because of the deleterious effects it could have on children and parent-child relationships.

Concluding a decade of debate in British intellectual circles, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, echoing the concerns raised by Vera Brittain and Bertrand Russell. The novel is set in the year 2540 and depicts a world where sex is recreational, love is obsolete and the idea of family is obscene. A world state manufactures its citizens by fertilising embryos in test tubes, chemically processing and classifying them into hierarchical sociobiological groups and then bringing them to term in a human “hatcheries”. It is this work by one man that will live on for posterity as a testament to the British intellectual debate on this issue in the 1920s.

UNBORN0X9 at MU Hybrid Art House, 2022. Image: Max Kneefel

UNBORN0X9: 0-9 months
The use of “0x9” in the project UNBORN0X9 is there to remind us of all the stages from 0 to 9 months and the moral status that one wants to give to this non-yet-human, non-yet-born. For on the one hand, there are those who argue that human life begins at or shortly after conception and should be given (at least partial) protection from that point onwards; and on the other hand, there are those who argue that the fetus is not a person in moral terms and therefore has no right to life before birth. In the middle are a number of positions that attempt to fall between these two polarised views. Some argue that the fetus acquires moral status during gestation, with the increase in moral status being either gradual throughout gestation or at a particular developmental threshold in gestation. This gradual or sudden increase in moral status raises many questions about the different phases of gestation over 9 months of an unborn human organism.

An embryo is defined as a developing human organism before 8 weeks of gestation. In law, the embryo has no legal existence. Only the birth of a child confers a status. From an ethical point of view, the question of the status of the embryo is a never-ending discussion that is strongly influenced by everyone's beliefs and convictions. In France, for example, research on embryos is authorised within a period of 7 days, a period that is only justified if the embryo is transferred to the uterus, since implantation in the endometrium occurs 6 to 7 days after conception. Beyond that, implantation can no longer take place. In the United Kingdom, the 14-day period has been adopted because it corresponds to the formation of the outline of the neural tube (primitive nervous system). While recent scientific advances suggest that it would be interesting to go beyond this to study embryonic development in in vitro models, there is very little support in the scientific community for the total removal of restrictions on embryo research [24]. If this accepted framework should therefore prevent the full gestation of human foetuses under artificial conditions for a long time to come, many scientific developments linked to Artificial Intelligence management of animal embryos in artificial wombs are still critically challenging this situation [25].

On the other hand, the transfer of a premature baby into an artificial womb could develop quite quickly and also raises questions about the ongoing moral debate about the right to abortion. For the record, it was Lenin who made Soviet Russia the first country to legalise abortion in 1920. Today abortion can be performed up to the end of the 12th week in most European countries (the time when the foetus begins to possess certain recognisable human characteristics), the 14th week of pregnancy in France, the 18th week in Sweden, the 22nd week in Spain and the Netherlands, the 23rd week in Canada, the 24th week in the United Kingdom and the United States (the viability threshold for very premature babies). Abortions may be performed after 24 weeks, especially when the mother's prognosis is vital. Beyond 28 weeks of gestation, the vast majority of these developing human entities would not be considered "extremely premature" if delivered and can survive with a good long-term prognosis. In the continuing debate over this particular time frame, pro-life movements in the US see ectogenesis as a life-saving "solution" to abortion [26]  because a pregnant person could be released from pregnancy without "killing" the foetus. E.C. Romanis points out in “Regulating the 'Brave New World'” [27]  that partial ectogenesis begins with the body of a pregnant person and necessarily involves the body of a pregnant person. Similarly, the decision to abort is a matter of the pregnant person's body and autonomy, and abortion is not reducible to a physical desire not to be pregnant; abortion offers pregnant women the opportunity to conclusively reject biological parenthood and/or social motherhood. Partial ectogenesis cannot be an "alternative" to abortion, a crucial point that the author rightly states [28].

Since the law is not able to deduce absolute truths about the moral status of the embryo, foetus or gestating entities ex utero, it is more important, as E.C. Romanis clearly states, to focus on the extrinsic value that might be afforded to gestating entities by those around them. “This extrinsic value will more often directly influence our perceptions about the gestating entity and the obligations that we may have towards it. There are concrete harms that materialise to surrounding persons as a result of how the entity gestating ex utero is treated. That is to say that, even if an entity exists ex utero it does not exist in a vacuum; it remains embedded in a particular set of complex circumstances, particularly in relation to the genetic progenitors of that entity. […] whatever its intrinsic moral value, the human entity gestating ex utero exists in ‘a moral community and thereby [is] situated in a complex web of relationships will provide the most fruitful framework when responding to ethical issues such as those generated by the abortion dialogue’ [29]  or, in the case of this thesis, determining ethical treatment of the subject of an artificial womb. The subject of an artificial womb is a human entity that will be (often) meaningful to actors around it. It is still undergoing the process of gestation, though facilitated by artificial conditions. What is done, or not done, to this developing entity will impact on those around it, for example, those responsible for its conception and/or the former pregnant person, whether these are individuals who want to parent it or not.” [30]

The future of partial ectogenesis
Taking the case of unsafe pregnancies, it is possible that artificial wombs in partial ectogenesis situations could alter perceptions of the level of risk sufficient to justify intervention to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of an individual's health. Again, here, E.C. Romanis is much of help: “Artificial Wombs could impact perceptions of viability and could, therefore, remove the importance placed on gestational maturity in obstetric decision-making. If foetuses are considered ‘viable by virtue of technology’ earlier in a pregnancy, this could diminish the emphasis placed on the timing of delivery from the decision-making process that obstetricians evoke when considering bringing a high-risk pregnancy to an end. With the concern about fetal viability increasingly removed from the equation, and because lower levels of risk that signal the need for intervention are likely to occur earlier in pregnancy, there could not only be an increase in premature endings to pregnancy, but these terminations could be more ‘premature’. There might be attempts to transfer foetuses to artificial wombs very early in gestation (18 weeks), but also more routine attempts to end pregnancies closer to the threshold of viability (22-24 weeks) as opposed to continuing and monitoring the pregnancy to ensure delivery is as far along as possible.” [31]

E.C. Romanis continues: “Finally, if artificial wombs were a reliable alternative to pregnancy a demand might emerge for endings to pregnancy (in favour of ex utero gestation) in less urgent or in non-medical circumstances. Pregnant people whose pregnancies pose a lesser risk to health may request to opt for an alternative to their gestation. Unpleasant or uncomfortable, but not actively dangerous, experiences during pregnancy might encourage pregnant people to seek termination in favour of artificial wombs. Unrelenting morning sickness, mobility issues and swollen limbs, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, fear of developing post-partum depression and plenty of other side effects can be difficult to endure for some pregnant people.” [32]  In Equal Opportunity and the Case for State Sponsored Ectogenesis (2015), Evie Kendal suggests that there may also be pregnant women who seek termination to escape the associated social stigma. For example, those who are concerned about the impact on their work and potential discrimination or who are struggling with addiction [33].

We can therefore see that while complete ectogenesis does not currently have a legal framework for its emergence, partial ectogenesis is on the verge of breaking into our advanced societies and in the medium term could pave the way for its complete version. As we can see from the debate on surrogacy, gestation is a taboo. E.C. Romanis raises these points in her rich essay, and there is no doubt that we should see a polarisation of debates around the perspectives opened by partial ectogenesis and a very likely wide literature of ethical-legal, philosophical, religious or moral appreciations that will accompany it.

UNBORN0X9 was on show at MU Hybrid Art House during the exhibition Reproduction Otherwise, from 7 October - 27 November 2022.

UNBORN0X9 at MU Hybrid Art House, 2022. Image: Boudewijn Bollmann

[1] Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, “Regulating the 'Brave New World': Ethico-Legal Implications of the Quest for Partial Ectogenesis”, PhD in Bioethics/Medical Jurisprudence, the University of Manchester, 2020. Online at: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:326419
[2] See https://perinatallifesupport.eu/
[3] Evie Kendal, Equal Opportunity and the Case for State Sponsored Ectogenesis, Palgrave, 2015, quoted by E.C. Romanis.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Philip Bal, Unnatural: The Heretic Idea of Making People, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.
[7] Ibid.
[8] "Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbite with the highest putrefaction of the venter equinus [horse manure] for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen…If now, after this, it be everyday nourished and fed cautiously and prudently with [an] arcanum of human blood…it becomes, thenceforth, a true and living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller.” Quoted in Ball, P., The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance and Magic. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jâbir Ibn Hayyân, Dix traités d’alchimie : Les dix premiers Traités du Livre des Soixante-dix, Actes Sud, 1999.
[11] In his November 1677 letter to the Royal Society, “de Natis e semine genital Animalculis”.
[12] “Epigenesis and Preformationism” (2005), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2008 edition. Online at: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/epigenesis/
[13] Under the pseudonym of Dalenpatius, François de Plantade announces (in Latin, because his letter "contains a subject which cannot be treated in French") to have observed the "metamorphosis" of an "animalcule" which gets rid of its cuticle and appears as a "human body", quickly dead, but endowed with all the vital organs, even if it is too small so that its sex can be recognized. François de Plantade, « Extrait d'une lettre de M. Dalenpatius à l'auteur de ces Nouvelles, contenant une découverte curieuse, faite par le moyen du microscope », in Nouvelles de la République des lettres, May 1699, pp. 552-554.
[14] Its members include Dora and Bertrand Russell, C.K. Ogden, Francis Darwin and John Maynard Keynes. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke, G. E. Moore, George Bernard Shaw, Rebecca West, Eileen Power, Roger Fry and Ludwig Wittgenstein are just a few of the many authors who submitted articles to Heretics between 1909 and 1932.
[15] John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, Daedalus, or Science and the Future, 1923. Online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm
[16] "Mr. Haldane's Daedalus has set forth an attractive picture of the future as it may become through the use of scientific discoveries to promote human happiness. Much as I should like to agree with his forecast, a long experience of statesmen and government has made me somewhat sceptical. I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly. In Bertrand Russell, Icarus or The Future of Science, 1924. Online at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/russell2.htm
[17] Dora Russell, Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge, 1925. Online at: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.108394/page/n7/mode/2up
[18] Charlotte Haldane, Man's World, Chatto and Windus, 1926.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Allegra Hartley, “Mothers in a Man's World: Masculinity, maternity and science in Charlotte Haldane's interwar fiction”, Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield, 2018.
[21] Vera Brittain, Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy, To-day and To-morrow, 1929.
[22] Vera Brittain, Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy, To-day and To-morrow, 1929, p.76. Quoted in Aline Ferreira, 'The Sexual Politics of Ectogenesis in the To-day and To-morrow Series', Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 34 No. 1, March 2009.
[23] Ibid.
[24] See: https://www.inserm.fr/actualite/recherche-sur-embryon-pratique-necessaire-et-bien-encadree-en-france/
[25] Zeng Weijun, Zhao Zhenying, Yang Yuchen, Zhou Minchao, Wang Bidou, Sun Haixuan. « Design and experiment of online monitoring system for long-term culture of embryo. Journal of Biomedical Engineering », 2021, 38(6): 1134-1143.
[26] Marie Mandy in discussion with Henri Atlan in the radio programme "L'Utérus artificiel", La Tête au Carré, France Inter, 4 April 2011. https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/la-tete-au-carre/la-tete-au-carre-04-avril-2011
[27] Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, 'Regulating the 'Brave New World': Ethico-Legal Implications of the Quest for Partial Ectogenesis', PhD in Bioethics/Medical Jurisprudence, the University of Manchester, 2020. Online at: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:326419
[28] Ibid.
[29] Elizabeth Mackintosh, ‘Abortion and Moral Context: Human Beings in a Moral Community,’ (PhD thesis, Durham University, 2015), 51. Quoted by E.C. Romanis.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Evie Kendal, Equal Opportunity and the Case for State Sponsored Ectogenesis, Palgrave Pivot; 1st ed. 2015. Quoted by E.C. Romanis.