How to Build an Artificial Womb

A chastity belt in Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man exhibition caused legal scholar Claire Horn to reflect on her own objects of research.

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

The chastity belt is decidedly grotesque. It is impossible to look at it – etched flowers, prickly metal slit, locks and all – without imagining how it was worn. Exposed to such a confronting object, my internal process of critical thinking, taken for granted after too many years of professors insisting on “reading against the text” immediately shut down in favour of accepting that however improbable it appeared, this was most certainly a device that was once commonly used. I arrived at this presumption in the absence of evidence. The visceral nature of the thing prompted me to accept the worst-case scenario: indeed, Medieval knights had forced this torture belt on their wives. In several long moments of looking and imagining, I became certain this was so. Given how quick I am to dissect every headline, I should be ashamed of the speed with which I concluded the nature of the chastity belt. But then again, if I hadn’t so wholeheartedly believed one story of its origin, I would not have arrived at the space of total possibility which suddenly opened when I learned I was wrong. This was not an item that was likely ever to have been worn. Instead, it was a product of 19th century fantasy, possibly a misreading of metaphors from earlier aeons, some version of an aristocrat’s constructed folly. The belt went from object of torture to object of intrigue.

Iron chastity belt, Europe, 1501-1600. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In my own field, as a legal scholar researching artificial womb technology, I am often struck by the disappearance of the artificial womb as object, even as academics and popular commentators compete to place it within contrasting narratives. But the artificial womb, both as a biomedical intervention currently in development, and as a tool for sci fi speculation (imagined variously as a glass case, a front-facing backpack, an orb, a red balloon…), is a deeply compelling object. In fact, the stakes of attending to physicality, material, and embodiment, have always sat close to the surface in my work. Artificial wombs which would facilitate the latter half of human gestation (from approximately 23 weeks) outside of the body are predicted to be ready for human trials within five years (Bonito, 2019). While experimental designs have varied, in a nutshell, the technology is innovative for the way it treats babies born at the current cusp of “fetal viability” (the point at which a fetus has a chance of survival outside the womb), like fetuses still in the uterus, rather than like preterm babies in need of emergency care (Usuda et al 2019). The fetus is suspended in artificial amniotic fluid, pumped by an artificial placenta and circulated by the fetus’s own movements. If successful, the technology could drastically improve health outcomes for neonates.

My PhD work arose in response to a common claim in historical and contemporary literature on artificial womb technologies: that they will end both the need and legal justification for abortion. Since the 1970s, legal and bioethical scholars have contended that because artificial wombs could allow a pregnancy to end without causing the death of the fetus (by having it extracted to continue to grow through ectogenesis instead), abortion rights could no longer be defended. My research comparing the impact of artificial wombs on abortion regulation in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom where the Abortion Act 1967 applies, demonstrated that this technology only threatens abortion rights where they have been constructed as contingent on fetal rights to life. In the UK and United States, abortion remains a criminal offence with exceptions, and a gestational limit of 24 weeks acts as a legal line at which state interest in fetal life increases, and abortion can be more heavily restricted or in some instances, banned. In these contexts, the way that artificial womb technology stands to lower the point at which a fetus has a chance of survival outside the womb does potentially pose a threat to abortion rights. By contrast, in Canada, abortion is decriminalized throughout pregnancy, and no legal limit is in place. When considered within this jurisdiction, the potential of the artificial womb to improve care for premature babies need not have a subsequent effect on abortion rights. Drawing on feminist relational theory and reproductive justice scholarship, I argued that to prepare for the introduction of artificial wombs, efforts should not be turned to strategies that retain the status quo, but instead focus should be placed on fighting to decriminalize abortion and improve access to reproductive care across the lifespan (Horn, forthcoming 2020).

My work is about remaining grounded in certain physical realities: the body of the pregnant person, for whom ending a pregnancy must remain an option, the way in which human bodies enact care that sustains the fetus within the artificial womb, the liquid atmosphere of the technology itself. The neonate within. It is precisely these “things,” or entities, with which I now find myself concerned.

One of the gut reactions to my research that has recurred at conferences, in the office, at dinner parties, is essentially “this again.” The history of reproductive technologies is rife with stratification. In some instances, this stratification looks like increased “choice” in access to birth control for middle class white women alongside the forced testing of these same technologies on women of colour in the Global South (Ross et al, 2017). In other instances, it looks like dialogues pushing for increased choice in access to interventions such as IVF, alongside ongoing privileging of genetic-family making which subsume and exile from care families built through other means.  As Cavaliere has rightfully argued, the artificial womb stands to be another such intervention: a costly technology, built for use in well-equipped neonatal intensive care units, and accessible to a privileged few (Cavaliere, 2019). Considered in this light, then, the introduction of the artificial womb, in not redressing existing stratification, is likely to have the effect of enhancing it. That means enhancing the gap in maternal and neonatal health outcomes between high and low-income nations (see Smalls et al, 2018). Within wealthy nations, it means worsening racialised stratification in these outcomes. This technology, after all, is not going to solve structural racism, maternal stress exacerbated by discriminatory practices, or a lack of culturally responsive care (see Taylor et al 2019; Matoba, 2017; Kolahdooz et al, 2016). Researchers currently working on this technology, in centralizing questions of efficacy over access, adaptability, and use by nonexperts, are likely to produce an artificial womb that offers very little when it comes to questions of justice.

This is what brought me to stand in the Medicine Man gallery contemplating a chastity belt. In my new research, I am taking up questions of social inequality, and access to care in the design and implementation of artificial wombs. And access, here, is not simply about the availability of an intervention, though that is certainly a consideration. The oft-cited Shulamith Firestone wrote of artificial wombs in the 1970s, “in the hands of our current society and under the direction of current scientists (few of whom are female or even feminist), any attempted use of technology to ‘free’ anybody is suspect”(1979:136). There’s an unanswered question here: in whose hands, in what society, under whose direction, might an artificial womb have a different kind of social impact than the high-tech neonatal intervention currently under construction? How might experiences of, access to, and affective responses to an artificial womb change if it were constructed to be something that a person could use in their own home? With the support of a midwife or doula? These are speculative questions, but they are ones I want to ask beginning at the level of material things. The biobag is liquid, plastic, housed within a hospital amidst smart computers and neonatologists. What else could it be, and where? To enter this project, I’m beginning by resisting the urge that overtook me as I stared at the chastity belt, the urge to accept one version of events. Instead, this research begins from a place of speculating that there are many possible paths available to us as we approach the construction of artificial wombs.


Claire Horn is a final year PhD candidate at Birkbeck, School of Law. Her thesis, “Gestation Beyond Mother/Machine: Legal Frameworks for Abortion, Artificial Wombs, and Care” the impact of artificial womb technology on the regulation of abortion in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.


Bonito, Valentina. 2020. “Multimillion Grant Brings Artificial Womb One Step Closer,’ T/U Eindhoven University of Technology.

Cavaliere, Giulia. 2019. “Gestation, Equality, and Freedom: Ectogenesis as a Political Perspective.” Journal of Medical Ethics. Online first 08 November 2019. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105691

Firestone, Shulamith. 1979. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. London: The Women’s Press.

Horn, Claire. 2020 (forthcoming). “Ectogenesis is for Feminists: Reclaiming Artificial Wombs from Antiabortion Discourse.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience.

Kolahdooz, Fariba, Katherine Launier, Forouz Nader, Kyoung June Yi, Tara-Leigh McHugh, Helen Vallianatos, and Sangita Sharma. 2016. “Canadian Indigenous Women’s Perspectives of Maternal Health and Care Services: A Systematic Review.” Diversity and Equality in Health and Care 13, no. 5: 334-348.

Matoba, Collins, JW. 2017. “Racial Disparity in Infant Mortality.” Seminars in Perinatology 4: 354–359.

Novoa, Cristina, and Jamilla Taylor. 2018. “Exploring African Americans’ High Maternal and Infant Death Rates.” Center for American Progress. (accessed June 29 2019).

Ross, Loretta, and Lynn Roberts, Erika Derklas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure, eds. 2017. Radical Reproductive Justice. New York: the Feminist Press.

Taylor, Jamilla, Cristina Novoa, Katie Hamm, and Shilpa Phadke. 2019. “Eliminating Racial Disparities in Maternal and Infant Mortality.” Center for American Progress. (accessed June 29 2019).

Usuda, H.W, Watanabe, S., Miura, Y. et al. (2019). Successful use of an artificial placenta to support ovine fetuses at the border of viability. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecololgy 221, no. 1: 69e.1-69e.17

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