This podcast mini-series by ABC takes a 'womb's eye view of reproduction', in the words of its presenter Natasha Mitchell.
The first episode explores the topic of ectogenesis - the gestation of embryos in artificial conditions outside the uterus - a term coined by British scientist John BS Haldane in 1923. It does this by taking listeners on a journey through 'The Growing Season' (Vintage, 2017), a novel written by Dr Helen Sedgwick who is also a physicist and bioengineer.
In the beginning of this episode, Mitchell speaks over a recording from Margaret Atwood's 1985 book, 'The Handmaid's Tale'. This dystopian novel describes a world in which pregnancy is outsourced to handmaids. The presenter then gets the listeners to imagine a world in which pregnancy is outsourced to technology and this is followed by the voice of Eva, a character from 'The Growing Season'.
Throughout the episode we switch from listening to Mitchell interviewing Dr Sedgwick to listening to Dr Sedgwick reading different parts of the book aloud. I found this very effective as it drew me into the writer's mind as well as into the world that she was describing.
'The Growing Season' imagines a hypothetical future in which embryos develop in artificial baby pouches. These fluid-filled pouches can be strapped onto the stomach like a rucksack and they contain the nutrients required for growth. The nutrients that the developing fetus receives can be personalised, and the individual wearing the pouch can feel the fetus kicking, and even sing to it through an adaptor.
The pouch can be worn by men and women or even by other family members, and it comes in different styles and colours. 'It's almost a fashion item,' says Mitchell.
Dr Sedgwick also gives some insight into her inspiration for 'The Growing Season' and said she first got the idea following a discussion with her friends about why feminism still has not yet given women complete equality.
She feels that: 'As long as women are still having the children, they will be expected to be the primary carers.'
She thought that the baby pouch could bring a change in the role of women in society because childbearing could be shared between men and women. In her novel, both men and women were given good parental leave because the men started demanding better parental rights. As a result both sexes also benefited from better flexible working conditions. This led to equality in the workforce.
During this episode, Mitchell and Dr Sedgwick are joined by bioethicist Dr Evie Kendal at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, who 'makes a strong philosophical case for ectogenesis', says Mitchell.
Dr Kendal's PhD was about ectogenesis and she wrote a book about the prospects of this technology, 'Equal opportunity and the case for state sponsored ectogenesis' (Palgrave, 2015). She described the world Aldous Huxley imagined in his 1932 dystopian novel 'Brave New World', which portrayed ectogenesis in a negative light.
Huxley's ideas were inspired by Haldane and in 'Brave New World' he imagined a world in which embryos were grown in jars on an assembly line. These embryos would be subjected to different conditions to make them into different classes, which formed different parts of the social hierarchy. The classes determined the careers that the individuals would be in.
In contrast, Dr Sedgwick set out to write a utopian novel that describes the society that she wants: one in which men and women are equal. However, even in her ideal society some problems arose.
The company, FullLife, that created the baby pouch could offer financial incentives to people from poor backgrounds. There was a class divide between people that opted for natural birth and those using the pouch. Women who chose natural birth were viewed as irresponsible by society because the pouch was deemed the safer option. A black market selling second-hand pouches also emerged.
Although some of the negative aspects of ectogenesis are explored through Dr Sedgewick's book, it would have been good to have someone who was against the use of ectogenesis as part of the podcast panel to give the listeners a more balanced overview of the topic.
Overall, I found this episode thought-provoking and informative, the constant switch from the presenter and guests talking to the chapters of the book being read out made me feel like I was part of the world Dr Sedgwick imagined in 'The Growing Season'.