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Artificial wombs and pregnant men

I've been sorely disappointed by feminists' responses to genetic engineering. Like many life sciences, genetic engineering has its dark side, but that's no excuse for groups like Gene Watch to claim that the feminist position on genetic engineering should be "Just say no." Why the hell shouldn't feminists seize the means of reproduction and turn them to our own best interests? Why shouldn't we be at the table when policymakers determine the best ways to regulate cloning, genetic engineering and new reproductive technologies?

If we turn our backs on the debate, it will just go on without us. And we know how that turns out already. Just look at what happened with birth control pills. The pill was developed and tested in the 1950s, entirely by male researchers one of whom, Harvard's John Rock, was a devout Catholic. Rock pushed for a dose cycle of the pill that would replicate a woman's monthly menstrual cycle, essentially so that it could be, like the rhythm method, a God-approved form of birth control. The Pope disagreed, but the monthly pill cycle stuck, despite the fact that the pill could completely eliminate menstruation for as long as a woman wished, and there was no evidence that this was any less healthy than a monthly menstrual cycle.

Let's think here, people if women and feminists had been involved in the process of developing the pill, there is no way we would have let them take away the possibility of a pill to eliminate our "little visitor." No woman likes to bleed once a month. It's messy, it's crampy, and occasionally there are embarrassingly stained clothes and sheets. Only men would deem it "better" for us to keep on putting up with this biological annoyance even after finding a cure for it. Luckily, there are now a handful of birth control products on the market, such as Seasonale and Lybrel, that do eliminate periods as well as prevent pregnancy. It only took 50 years.

That's why any feminist worth her sodium chloride should be charging into the debate on genetic engineering with a list of demands. Hell, yes, we want to change the biology of reproduction and we want to change it now.

The primary goal of a feminist genetic engineering project is to cut the reproductive process loose from patriarchy and male domination. One simple way to do that is to make sure feminist politics are front and center in any discussion about how we will use genetic engineering to eliminate harmful birth defects. I think we can all agree that it would be great to make sure babies aren't born with holes in their hearts, but what about girl babies born with small breasts? Can't you just see some clueless researcher claiming that women with small breasts are "harmed" psychologically, and that therefore we should engineer all women to have big ones? Feminists need to shut that shit down right away.

But what do we want? First of all, we want genetic engineering to transform the way families work, perhaps by making it possible for two women to create a baby without male intervention or for more than two parents to create a baby. (Researchers in Japan have already bred a healthy baby mouse out of genetic material from two females, and researchers in England are working on a human baby that will have genetic material from two women and one man.) Either way, you've got new parental formations, and hopefully this biological change will lead to child care being meted out more equally or at least challenge our preconceptions about what it means to be a "mommy" or a "daddy."

We also want artificial wombs, so that women don't have to stay home from work while gestating their fetuses. We need technologies that will at last close the "baby gap" in workplaces where women fall behind their male colleagues during pregnancies and their children's early development. Plus, we want men to be able to participate as fully in the reproductive process as possible. That's why male pregnancy and lactation should be a goal of feminist genetic engineers. We don't want merely to liberate ourselves from the reproductive process; we want to bring men into it as our equal partners.

New family structures, artificial wombs and pregnant men are just the very beginnings of what feminists should be demanding when it comes to the genetic transformation of our species. Let's get out of the streets and into the lab!

Annalee Newitz is a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Her forthcoming book, Pretend We're Dead (Duke University Press), is about monster movies and capitalism.

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