Tag Archives: reproduction

When Sex Is Divorced From Reproduction: The Possibilities And Implications

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Relatively speaking, it wasn’t that long ago in humanity’s history when finding food was a matter of survival. It wasn’t as simple as walking into the nearest grocery store and buying whatever was on sale. Individuals, governments, and societies dedicated a good chunk of their time and energy into securing a stable food source. Those who didn’t were usually the first victims of the next famine.

These days, getting a meal is less about survival and more about logistics. Thanks to major advances in agricultural science, including those of the late Norman Borlaug, we have so much abundant food that overeating is now a bigger problem than famine. Hunger is still a major issue for certain parts of the world, but it’s more a logistical issue than a resource issue.

Once food was divorced from famine and survival, it changed the way society approached it. Most people don’t even think about where they’re going to get their next meal. Their main concern is whether it’ll be a tasty meal.

With this critical need met, we can focus more time and energy on other matters. Even before science gave us abundant food, sex and reproduction was usually our second most pressing focus. It’s the other powerful drive that unites us all as a species. As a result, it’s subject to all sorts of taboos and has been central to multiple revolutions.

There’s no question that technology has impacted sexuality every bit as much as it impacted food production. Even advances unrelated to sex, especially anti-biotics, affected various attitudes and norms. However, even with these advances, sex maintains much of its primary function in that it’s still necessary for reproduction.

With that in mind, what happens when that’s no longer the case?

What happens to sex when it’s completely divorced from reproduction?

This isn’t another speculative thought experiment. This process is already unfolding. I would argue that it started on July 25, 1978 when the first baby was born from in vitro fertilization. Since then, over 8 million babies have been born through this technology. That is not a trivial number when we’re dealing with human lives.

Just take a step back to appreciate the implications of these lives. They were all conceived and birthed without sex. In centuries past, this was grounds for a miracle that could serve as a basis for a major religion. These days, it’s so routine that it never makes the news. Most people don’t think about it. It helps that these people are just as healthy and prosperous as those who were conceived with sex.

In the near future, this could change as well. Late last year, our technology went a step further beyond conceiving babies through in vitro fertilization with the birth of the first genetically edited babies in China. Now, it’s not just normal babies being born through this technology. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, children born without sex could be healthier and stronger than those conceived through sex.

Again, that is not a trivial detail. It’s one thing for technology to simply match a natural process, especially one as critical as human reproduction. Once it starts doing it better than nature, then that’s a huge paradigm shift. It might even be a point of no return. Having babies through sex is still a thing, but it’s no longer the most effective way to have healthy, strong children.

While this has generated plenty of controversy around topics like designer babies, there hasn’t been as much discussion about what this means for sex. If sex is no longer the primary method for reproduction, or the safest for that matter, what happens to our society? What happens to centuries of taboos, attitudes, traditions, and gender roles?

It’s difficult to speculate, but some have tried. In a recent article with the BBC, author Henry T. Greely laid out a general timeline. It doesn’t rely entirely on huge leaps in reproductive technology. It simply follows the trends that began with in vitro fertilization. In the interview, these are just a few thoughts he shared.

In 20 to 40 years, most people all over the world with good health coverage will choose to conceive in a lab. Like most things, there will be a fair amount of visceral negative reaction initially, but as time goes on and kids prove not to have two heads and a tail, the public will come not only to tolerate but to prefer reproducing non-sexually.

From a logistic and public health standpoint, this makes sense. Any healthy and prosperous society would want to promote the birth of healthy children in a manner that preserves the health of the mother. With technology like in vitro and CRISPR, it might very well be preferable because it means fewer diseases, lower health care costs, and fewer burdens on parents.

That doesn’t even begin to factor in the impact of more advanced reproductive technologies. With advances like artificial wombs in development, sex wouldn’t just be divorced from reproduction. Reproduction might not require any intimate connection whatsoever. At that point, sex for reproduction is akin to drinking unpasteurized milk.

Will people still have sex at that point? I believe they will. Unless we radically change our bodies all at once, the hardware for sex will still be present. The drive to do it will still be there as well, although some might opt to turn it off if that were an option. Regardless of any lingering attitudes and taboos, there’s no getting around it. Sex still feels good. It’s still a profoundly intimate act with many health benefits.

How people go about it will likely change. A great many taboos about sex stem from its role in reproduction. Much of the stigma surrounding promiscuity and traditional gender roles have a basis in highlighting the importance of sex in the propagation of our society and species. If are reckless about it, then that can spread disease, destabilize families, and create unhealthy environments for children.

Going back to the parallels with food, the same logic was once used to discourage gluttony. For much of human history, we had to be careful with how we consumed our food. If people consumed too much and were reckless with our eating habits, then they were ill-prepared for the next famine that inevitably came.

While sex and reproduction are still very different from consuming food, the influence of technology had a major impact on collective attitudes. We don’t look at people who overeat the same way we look at people who have lots of sex. Both may still draw scorn, but few will worry for the survival of the future of their community if a handful of people overeat.

At the moment, there are very real concerns surrounding falling birth rates and people having less sex than ever before. In some countries, the low birth rates are seen as an outright crisis that has also fueled ongoing debates surrounding immigration. Crisis or not, this situation is adding more urgency to the development of reproductive technologies. That, along with the decline in sex, could hasten this pending divorce.

Once it’s finalized, what form will sex take? It could simply become an act of intimacy or recreation. Humans might ultimately treat it the same way Bonobo monkeys treat it. It’s just an intimate activity that people do. Reproduction never even enters the conversation. People save that for when they want to design their baby.

It could also gain another purpose entirely. Maybe sex becomes less an act of intimacy and more an elaborate handshake, of sorts. It could be seen as a way of establishing trust or differentiating between casual acquaintances and close friends. In that world, friends with benefits are just friends. The benefits are implied by the friendship.

There’s also the very real possibility that people will just lose interest in sex. If there’s no reason to do it and it has no bearing on the growth of a society, then it just might be an afterthought. People might still do it, but those who do would be like the people who still have their own gardens in the backyard. It’s a quaint echo of our past that most have moved past.

These are possibilities. For now, there are no inevitabilities with respect to how we’ll approach sex once it’s no longer necessary for reproduction. It’ll likely be several decades before reproductive technology gets to a point where it’s preferable to sex, both for individuals and societies at large. Until then, this lengthy divorce is already at the early stages. It’s just a matter of how messy it’ll get in the coming years.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, futurism, gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, Second Sexual Revolution, sex in society, sexuality, Sexy Future, technology

Artificial Wombs, Declining Fertility, And The (Potentially Distressing) Implications

When I first discussed the prospect of artificial wombs, I did so knowing it would evoke distressing sentiments from those who are familiar with the classic novel, “Brave New World.” That’s not just because it’s Aldous Huxley most famous novel. It perfectly illustrates the dystopian implications of a world where society is engineered like an assembly line.

I don’t discount the seriousness of those implications. A world where birth, life, and death are so mechanized that peoples’ lives are barely distinguishable from robots is not an appealing world, to say the least. It’s not very sexy, either. Like “1984,” another famous novel I’ve mentioned, “Brave New World” highlights just how bad these advances in technology can get if not handled properly.

As cold and callous as “Brave New World” might have been, though, it still has the same fundamental flaw as “1984” and every other dystopian narrative. It relies on extreme worst case scenarios that depend on humanity exercising its worst traits. As someone who has emphasized having faith in humanity, I have a problem with those assumptions.

Flawed or not, humanity has proven time and again that we can adapt to major technological advances. However, there may be other complications associated with this particular technology.

Like contraception before it, including near-future advancements, artificial wombs will be subject to extra scrutiny because it involves human reproduction. Human reproduction, in case you’ve forgotten, also involves sex and that’s bound to make a lot of people exceedingly uncomfortable. We already know who some of those people might be.

Also like contraception, though, artificial wombs will help address a serious problem. One of the driving forces behind the development of contraception, going all the way back to ancient times, was the need to control our fertility. Between the various health issues for women and problems caused by unfettered population growth, there were a lot of incentives to drive this advancement.

With artificial wombs, however, the situation and incentives are very different. In fact, they’re unprecedented. I’ve already talked about a potential demographics problem for the industrialized world, as a result of low birth-rates. I won’t go so far as to call it a crisis, but that hasn’t stopped others from using apocalyptic rhetoric.

Assuming that lower birth rates and decreasing sexual activity become dire enough to warrant that rhetoric, artificial wombs are in a position to address it. I’m not just talking about infertile couples being able to have children or having children while both parents continue to work either. Unlike contraception, this technology will completely change the rules to human fertility.

This is where some of the dystopian concepts in “Brave New World” get a bit too real. To understand those concepts, we need to stop thinking like ordinary citizens who just want to have babies without stretch-marks and morning sickness. Instead, we need to channel our inner bureaucrat and think about the functioning of society, as a whole.

With that context in mind, here’s the scenario your society faces.

  • You’ve got a sizable population with a functioning economy
  • That economy relies heavily on people buying and producing services
  • The government provides various benefits and welfare to older or disabled citizens, relying on taxes paid by able-bodied workers/consumers
  • The ability to keep the economy growing relies on increasing the population in order to increase the consumer base
  • The ability to provide government services and welfare depends on there being enough citizens of working age to generate the necessary capital
  • However, the population has stopped growing, the people aren’t having children, and fewer workers are in place to support an aging population

What I just described is similar to the demographics issue facing many industrialized countries. As it stands, the solutions are few and far between. However, in this scenario, the powers that be have a tool that nobody else has at the moment. They have functional artificial wombs.

Suddenly, there’s a solution. Instead of trying to get citizens to have more sex and make more babies, they can just skip that part entirely and breed a new crop of citizens in artificial wombs. Sure, it requires some questionable ethics, but it’s not like that has ever stopped governments before.

Ignoring, for a moment, the distressing implications of governments breeding and conditioning its own citizens, it’s an easy solution that doesn’t rely on stubborn citizens to go along with it. In other words, it’s the kind of solution that governments and authority figures love.

On paper, it works perfectly. In some shadowy government site ripped right out of “Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones,” rows upon rows of artificial wombs birth a steady supply of healthy citizens. Unlike the chaotic breeding habits of its citizens, though, this operation could be tightly controlled and perfectly optimized.

In a sense, it would be even more efficient than natural birth. If the artificial womb technology is sufficiently advanced, then it could be configured to ensure that only healthy, disease-free children are born. Maybe the government would even gather information on the gene pool of their society and filter it so that only the best traits are passed down.

If that idea sends a chill down your spine, then chances are you’re painfully familiar with eugenics and infamous political movements from 1930s Germany. I don’t deny that the similarities are there, nor do I deny the disturbing ethics involved.

Despite these connotations, though, it doesn’t change the fact that artificial wombs present a functional solution to societies facing demographics issues. Through the use of this technology, the government can ensure that the population can keep growing at the necessary pace to maintain the system.

What may make this solution more appealing and more egregious is that it focuses on bolstering native populations. Given the rise in anti-immigration rhetoric, that’s going to appeal to certain societies, some more than others. Those obsessed with keeping their societies and cultures “pure” will jump at the chance to use artificial wombs to guide their demographics.

It’s a concept that even “Brave New World” didn’t explore. That’s because Huxley was more concerned about the impact of reducing basic human activity to a detached, mechanical process. I believe if he were alive today, he would see how increasing tribalism would prompt societies to use such technology in different ways.

These are all distressing implications, but we can take some comfort that artificial wombs are still a ways off. Chances are they won’t be perfected within the next couple decades, but that doesn’t mean the incentives to use them will go away. In fact, they may intensify as demographic issues continue to evolve.

However, me being the hopeless optimist I am, I believe this technology won’t drive the kind of dystopian, eugenics-driven society that give die-hard racists wet dreams. I believe humanity is better at adapting to these technologies than we give it credit for. If we did it with nuclear weapons, we can do it for artificial wombs.

Sure, there will still be issues, both ethical and pragmatic. There will probably be a sizable contingent of people who dread and fear this technology. However, just as the real 1984 was nothing like anything Orwell had imagined, a world with artificial wombs will be nothing like Huxley or aspiring erotica/romance writers can imagine.

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Filed under gender issues, sex robots, Sexy Future

Update On Artificial Wombs And Potential Obstacles

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Earlier this year, I talked about the promise of artificial wombs and how they could be the ultimate solution to abortion, gender inequality, and stretch marks. At a time when abortion laws are becoming increasingly controversial and people are protesting gender inequality in major cities, I think that promise is becoming increasingly important.

As it stands, though, the science behind artificial wombs is still very young. It may be one of those technologies that doesn’t get perfected within our lifetimes, but then again the pace of technology is wildly unpredictable. Remember, your smartphone is a million times more powerful than every computer at NASA in 1969. Technology can sneak up on us is what I’m saying.

Artificial wombs probably won’t advance at the same pace as smart phones, if only because they involve women’s body parts and we’re always a bit more careful/awkward when it comes to women’s body parts. However, that doesn’t keep the technology from advancing.

Just last month, doctors in Philadelphia were able to bring a premature lamb to term using a special fluid-filled bag that mimicked the conditions of a womb. The baby lamb was able to develop and eventually survive on its own outside the bag. By all accounts, the lambs developed normally.

It’s not a full-blown artificial womb, but it’s an important step. The lambs in this case weren’t entirely grown in the womb. They were placed in the bag just 105 days after conception, which is akin to a human fetus being 22 weeks into its 40-week gestation period.

That means that, if applied to humans, more prematurely-born infants could survive to term. On top of that, if there’s a complication with the mother’s health, she needs to only endure half a pregnancy before transferring the fetus to one of these units. Her life will be saved. The baby’s life will be saved. Given how many children die due to premature birth, this is a technology that could potentially save countless lives.

Then, as the technology improves, it will eventually reach the point where a child can develop entirely within an artificial womb. There’s no need for a woman to endure any pregnancy at all. The extent to which that would change our society, from gender issues to sexuality, cannot be overstated.

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That technology is still a ways off, but we’re literally halfway there. Depending on how the pace of advancement will change, due to financial and regulatory pressures, it’s hard to say whether it’ll happen in my lifetime. However, it will happen. There’s just too much appeal to not having to endure nine months of pregnancy.

That leads me to a personal story that occurred recently while I was meeting with some family friends. It’s a story that highlights one of the biggest issues that artificial wombs would have and it has nothing to do with the technology.

Recently, a close relative of mine had a child. It was a joyous occasion for the entire family. I was certainly happy. I’ve had a chance to see that child grow it’s been a wonderful experience for everyone involved.

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It has also led to a number of discussions about the rigors of pregnancy. Many women in my family have their share of stories about what it was like to grow another human inside them over a nine-month period. Some of those stories were funny. Some of them made me cringe in ways I usually reserve for a dentist appointment.

At one point in that discussion, though, I brought up artificial wombs. I asked them if they had the option of having their child, but without going through the rigors of pregnancy, would they do it? After the stories they described, I thought at least some would jump at the chance. However, none of them did.

It’s true. Every woman I asked said they would still endure nine months of hardship for their child. That surprised me because it hints at the mentality women feel when it comes to bearing their children. As uncomfortable and inconvenient as it is, they still go through it and would do it again for their children. That says a lot about a mother’s love.

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It also hints that the prospect of using artificial wombs in lieu of pregnancy might not catch on, even after the technology is perfected. Even if an artificial womb is healthier, safer, and cheaper than natural birth, there may still be women who opt for the old fashioned way of baby-making.

This isn’t just someone who still opts to use a flip-phone over a smartphone. This is someone who is willing to put their bodies through a rigorous process that technology may very well make obsolete. What does that say about the human mindset, specifically those of women when they bear children?

Could this be a mentality that’s hardwired into our brains? Could this also be a product of people not keeping up with the times? Perhaps younger generations would be more willing to use an artificial womb over natural birth. Cultural attitudes may affect it as well. It may very well be the case that being a woman and not giving birth creates an identity crisis of sorts.

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It’s hard to tell at the moment because the technology is so new. It hasn’t even been used on humans yet, but that is going to happen soon, if only to ensure that premature babies survive. After that, there may be a shift in cultural attitudes. If the technology advances rapidly, it may lead to genuine conflict. In that sense, maybe Aldous Huxley, was onto something when he wrote “Brave New World.”

Maybe my family is unique in their attitudes towards natural birth. Maybe this is a question that we’re not ready to answer yet. Maybe it’s one I’ll ask again at another family gathering, if only to see if their attitudes have changed.

Technology changes societies. Some incur more change than others, as the inventor of ski masks can attest. However, we’ve never had a technology that changes how we actually propagate our species. That puts artificial wombs in a special, uncharted territory. What it means for us and the children we bear remains to be seen.

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