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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Uterine Replicator

Stuart & Lucy Gent
The terminology 'uterine replicator'  for a synthetic womb (I love it!)  is  Lois McMaster Bujold's.  She used the uterine replicator in Shards of Honor and expanded on the idea in Ethan of Athos.  But SF has come up with the idea of a synthetic womb many times. It's just that Bujold used it to consider how it would allow an all-male society.

Ethan of Athos is about a planet where a vaguely-Christian religious cult has set up an all-male polity and culture, because women are considered as the source of all evil.  It's a charming book, with a romantic and pleasing love story in it, and I wish to all heck I had written it.  Read my review to see why.  Since there are no women on Athos, they have to create children using uterine replicators, from eggs produced by donated ovaries, fertilised using artificial insemination. Like all technological innovations, the changes such an invention would be likely to bring in its wake will likely all be unexpected. 

I was led to think about the whole concept again by this fascinating story reported in Melbourne's Age newspaper. Stuart Gent, who is gay, wanted to have a child of his own.  So he found an egg donor and a surrogate mother, and had a daughter Lucy. Simple?  No.  Time consuming and very expensive, and not without human costs.  What if you could do it more easily and more cheaply?

Let us suppose for a moment that even the troglodytes eventually accept that the Bible doesn't really say that homosexuality  is immoral or evil.  This kind of volte-face is not without precedent.  The churches supported slavery and opposed women's rights.  Until they changed their minds.  The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa solemnly declared after apartheid* ended that apartheid was "unscriptural" though they had enthusiastically supported it, with appropriate Biblical quotes, while apartheid was the orthodoxy.

Let us suppose that as a result of this, societal attitudes to gayness move to indifference, in the same way that once women who wore trousers instead of skirts were considered immoral hussies but now no one could give a flying rat's clacker.  As I noted in a recent post, this seems already to be happening in certain circles.  I think that process is unstoppable, which is why the Christian-Fascists are so unattractively shrill and devious.

Without homophobia and religious hysteria, young men and women would happily try making love to others of their gender.  They might have a boyfriend followed by a girlfriend.  They might have a sequence from one gender followed by a similar number from the other.  When they went to parties, they wouldn't necessarily be on the lookout for someone of the "opposite" gender. 

It's sounds like a wonderful state of affairs, and, don't get me wrong, it is.   But there's a fly in the ointment.  What about children?  Let's assume for the moment that fairly long-lasting relationships (monogamy) between two people are what our species prefers (it might not be, see my piece, Our Cheatin' hearts, and think about the convenience of having threesomes to look after and bring up children) but let's assume that for now.  

With the uterine replicator, gay couples will be able to marry and have children. Of course, they can do that now, by adoption or using surrogate mothers.  But there are all sorts of difficulties inherent in the fact that biology requires a human womb to gestate a baby.  Interestingly, Bujold doesn't consider the fact that because her "invention" would make gay marriage no different in its essentials to heterosexual marriage, since both would use replicators to carry the foetus to term, it would also do away with hostility to gayness.  What is "natural" about a uterine replicator?  There would be no remaining "need" for heterosexual marriage as a parenting device (and she has some interesting enjoyably feminist comments on that aspect of marriage)  even though marriage for love would continue.

But until the uterine replicator has been invented, if you want children, and don't have oodles of money, you'll have to have some kind of relationship with the "opposite" sex.  In our ideal, troglodyte-free world, assuming (as we have above) that monogamy remains the norm, you would probably end up in a heterosexual marriage.  You might have sex with men and women until you decided you wanted a family and then you'd get married and "settle down".   And that would end your bisexual days.  Fidelity may have been set up as a desirable value by the patriarchy, eager to make sure that their wife's (or wives') babies were theirs, but it may also be hardwired into us (though I suspect it isn't.)  And my experience of the matter is that most wives do not take kindly even to the idea of their husbands having sex with their male friends, no matter how liberated they are.

So, absent a uterine replicator, even in our troglodyte-free society, most marriages would look pretty much as they do now, and most people who got married would marry someone of the "opposite" gender.  Most people would in practice be heterosexual, even as they are now.  And because values are often set just by the way things are now,  bisexuality would be seen as OK and normal between the onset of puberty and, say, your thirties, when you "settled down".  Practising bisexuality among older men and women would be considered risqué and even "off".  I know there are even now marriages where the wife allows the husband to have a male lover outside the marriage and indeed I consider such a marriage in my novel Footy.  But they are far from the norm.

Yet marriage has changed dramatically and may change more.  Everybody thinks that marriage now is the way it's always been, but that isn't so.  Read this fascinating essay by Stephanie Coontz in the Washington Post (my thanks to Hunter for alerting me to it)

Some quotes:
For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than love. Parents arranged their children's unions to expand the family labor force, gain well-connected in-laws and seal business deals. Sometimes, to consolidate inheritances, parents prevented their younger children from marrying at all. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Often, servants, slaves and paupers were forbidden to wed.

But a little more than two centuries ago, people began to believe that they had a right to choose their partners on the basis of love rather than having their marriages arranged to suit the interests of parents or the state.

Adopting love as the basis for marriage meant other changes, too, especially greater acceptance of the idea that men and women had a fundamental right to marry, even to people of whom their parents - and society - disapproved. By the 1940s and 1950s, many state courts were repealing laws that prevented particular classes of people from marrying. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for states to prohibit interracial marriage. In 1978, that court struck down a Wisconsin law prohibiting marriage by parents who had not met prior child-support obligations. In 1987, it upheld the right of prison inmates to marry. 
huge as the repercussions of the love revolution were, they did not make same-sex marriage inevitable, because marriage continued to be based on differing roles and rights for husbands and wives: Wives were legally dependent on their husbands and performed specific wifely duties. This was part of what marriage cemented in society, and the reason marriage was between men and women. Only when distinct gender roles ceased to be the organizing principle of marriage - in just the past 40 years - did we start down the road to legalizing unions between two men or two women. 
[My emphases]

As usual, my thoughts have wandered in an undisciplined and, well, wander-y way. But it does seem to me that as we as a society become easy with same-sex relationships, either marriage will continue its seismic shift of the last 200 years, or we'll have to invent the uterine replicator, or both. One thing is certain: the rabid religious right will continue to fight rearguard actions to take us back to some imaginary paradise from the past even as ordinary people rethink and reconstruct all the social relationships we all take and have all taken for granted.

A fascinating time to live in, don't you think?

*apartheid is pronounced apart+hate, easy to remember.  And it means separate (apart) + -ness (-heid, cognate with our -hood.)


Max said...

"Let's assume for the moment that fairly long-lasting relationships (monogamy) between two people are what our species prefers (it might not be, see my piece, Our Cheatin' hearts, and think about the convenience of having threesomes to look after and bring up children) but let's assume that for now."

I would think a traditional 2 party relationship and a threesome would be totally different animals. By that I mean that one should not intend to get the same benefits from a threesome that one does from a couple. It would likely depend upon values. And I would think that there would be a great deal more spiritual togetherness in a twosome. The proof is this. One has only the amount of energy commensurate to his abilities. To get close to someone involves effort to adjust to the partners' differences or to convince the partner that he should move towards you in areas that you have trouble changing. This effort takes a lot of energy. Energy is limited, so the love we have to show is limited. You see, love is not just a feeling or an image that you have in your head, love involves serious effort. Effort first to love in spite of perceived shortcomings I see in my partner.

So if love takes effort, we have limited love to give. It follows then that your total love would be half invested in each person of a threesome. However, a threesome has the delightful sexual and spiritual variety. One is not better than another, but they are different beasts. People can be successful in either provided they have a taste for the type of relationship they choose.

NPT said...

Those are interesting points. We handle multiple friendships -- and I'm not talking about mere acquaintances, but about deep love. To the extent that a loving relationship requires hard work, you're right.