Sharon A. Bong
« Technology in the Service of Humanity: Perspectives on Gender and Inclusion »
Linda Hogan, João J. Vila Chã, Michelle Becka
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Technology that matters is technology that serves humanity. Technology that is in the service of humanity is grounded in a Christian world-view that cements the place of humans in the world. Are these truth claims universally acknowledged? How would these truth claims hold up when appraised from a feminist lens that privileges gender diversity and inclusion of not only humans but also other species that are connected to humanity as a biological community?
This paper aims to offer a theological reflection on the question of gender and inclusion with a focus on reproductive technologies that are in the service of humanity paradoxically in calling to question not only how we understand our place in this world but also what it means to be human in relation to other humans, other species and the environment at large. The paper traces ontological and theological shifts through the trope of the womb as cosmic, material, and virtual sites of contestation: firstly, through the centring of the human in creation based on the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si (hereafter LS) manifested in technologies of, for and by humans; and secondly, the decentring of the human in creation through reproductive technologies, e.g. artificial wombs and its implications for the unborn, women, pregnant (trans)men. The paper argues for a decentring of the human in creation and concomitant foregrounding of radical relationality between humans and other species, to better embrace the sacredness of all in creation, in this Anthropocene Age of ecological crises that is culpably impacted by humans. The ways in which this endeavour – a feminist theoretical, theological and political praxis – potentially engenders post-gender, post-Christian, and post-human considerations, will now be borne.
1. Centring of the human in creation
The parameters that govern technology’s service to humanity are expounded in LS, a faith-based text that contemporaneously and urgently exhorts an ‘ecological conversion’ (LS, 217) in aspiring towards climate justice, consonant with the United Nations’ globally-endorsed Sustainable Development Goals. The integrity of technologies of, for and by humans are juxtaposed against the sacredness of creation of the Originator of Life: ‘How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer1.5). We were conceived in the heart of God’ (LS, 65). The trope of the cosmic womb is metaphorical; it signifies Nature – of which the woman’s uterus is a microcosmic version of – and the omniscience of its ‘Creator’, God the Father. The binary between order/chaos is established, with the purposeful not randomised inception of ‘each human life’, and this binary is further gender scripted through the matrimonial union of man and his wife in begetting life which in turn, renders the human as agentic participants in the ‘recurring cycles’ of life on earth.
Knowing one’s place in the world is keeping to one’s place in the world: as the Creator God and His creations are mutually exclusive categories; the human may seek to imitate but may not exceed his/her God-given talents in appropriating the Source of Life. When ‘the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by [the human] presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations,’ this ‘rupture is sin’ (LS, 66). The first governing principle of the Christian world-view is thus a hierarchical ordering of Creator/creation; God/nature (comprising human, non-human and other species).
Ensuing from the hierarchical ordering of creation is the second governing principle which is anthropocentrism; the centring of the human above non-human and other species in creation. The human is conferred ‘an infinite dignity’, literally stands above non-humans and other species as the human alone is created in ‘God’s image and likeness’ (LS, 65) and has the unique capacity to reason (LS, 81). The hierarchically-ordered relationship of God/human/nature (comprising non-human and other species), as opposed to a ‘a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles’, renders morally acceptable, experimentation on animals for the sake of ‘saving human lives’ (LS, 130) but not ‘living human embryos’ (LS, 136). The primacy of the human and concomitant utility value of non-human and other species as objects of human-driven scientific endeavours is inferred as ‘human beings [possess] a particular dignity above other creatures’ (119). Ontologically, not all are created equal.
Flowing from both these fundamental principles is the third principle that is related to the excesses of anthropocentrism framed within a ‘technocratic paradigm’ that is ‘undifferentiated and one-dimensional’ that is largely blamed for the ecological crises today (LS, 106). The Church as the first violator, holds itself accountable, for its once ‘mistaken understanding of [its] own principles has at times led [it] to justify mistreating nature, to exercise tyranny over creation’ (LS, 200). It now accountably advocates for ‘responsible stewardship’ (LS, 116). In doing so, the Church adroitly positions not anthropocentrism in and of itself as problematic but rather, its excesses manifested in at least two ways. In the first instance, there is ‘modern (secularized) anthropocentrism’ where ‘the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere “given”, as an object of utility’ which compromises ‘the (biblically-supported) intrinsic dignity of the world’ and all that inhabit it (LS, 115). It is further denounced as ‘a tyrannical anthropocentrism’ that does not ‘respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world’ (LS, 68); an ‘equilibra’ that rests on the hierarchical ordering of God/human/nature. Essentially, ‘dominion’ over non-human and other species is in keeping with God’s plan but not ‘absolute dominion over other creatures’ (LS, 67, italics mine).
Is it then surprising that the other instance of excessive anthropomorphism that veers from this divine plan, what LS terms as a ‘misguided anthropocentrism,’ is ‘biocentrism’; where ‘the human person is considered as simply one being among others’ (LS, 118), i.e. not centred in creation above non-human and other species. Such a standpoint coheres with queer ecofeminism that embraces the inherent dignity of all – human, non-human and other species (e.g. advocating for animal rights on par with human rights) – and draws a parallelism between gender diversity and inclusion (of the entire spectrum of human sexuality) and biological diversity (biodiversity). I argue that such a standpoint more faithfully coheres with a relationality that is founded on inclusiveness, interdependency and mutuality which is what LS ambivalently exhorts; ‘When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected’ (LS, 117). Connectivity however, within a Christian world-view, has its limits, given its anthropocentric base and bias.
As such, the parameters that govern technology’s service to humanity as expounded in LS present a Christian world-view that denotes sinful ‘rupture’ firstly, as human hubris in overreaching his/her potential, for instance, to advance life-giving or life-taking reproductive technologies and secondly, a ‘tyrannical anthropocentrism’ that is ‘unconcerned for other creatures’ (LS, 68). On the first point, humans ‘have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology’ which includes experimentation on non-human and other species for the sake of the human; ‘primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering’ (LS, 112).
On the second point, there is no ‘justification of abortion’ as it is ‘incompatible with the protection of nature’ that begins with the protection of the (human) embryo given the interrelatedness of all creation (LS, 120). Abortion and by extension, ‘certain politics of “reproductive health”’ aimed at global overpopulation (LS, 50) are branded as weak responses to the cries of the (feminized) earth. And the scourge of any technology that is aimed at reducing the ‘presence of human beings’ (LS, 60), created imago dei and conferred ‘a particular dignity above other creatures’ (119), is as culpable as systemic violations of climate and social justice such as ‘ecological debt’ between the global north and south (LS, 51), ‘techno-economic paradigm’ (LS, 53), a ‘deified market’ (LS, 56), ‘self-interested pragmatism’ and ‘the paradigm of consumerism’ (LS, 215). With an illusion to the ‘politics of reproductive technology’ that throws into relief, uterus wars – that pit a woman’s choice to self-determination and bodily integrity against the weight of biological, national, cultural imperatives of motherhood and the ensuing ethical burden these have on women whose bodies are differently marked by age, class, ethnicity, religiosity – women’s voices and lived experiences are, in one fell swoop, elided. Ultimately, reproductive technologies that are accorded legitimacy are those that embrace the ‘culture of life’ (with the heterosexual family at its heart) and reject the ‘culture of death’ (LS, 213).
2. De-centring of the human in creation
Yet how would the parameters that govern technology’s service to humanity that are informed by a Christian world-view as elucidated above, be brought to bear on the phenomenon of artificial wombs that arguably embraces the ‘culture of life’ (LS, 213)? Would similar legitimacy be accorded to artificial wombs, when one weighs the biotechnological breakthrough in light of ethical implications for the unborn, women who signify both a real and ‘potentially “maternal body”,’transwomen who desire to mother and pregnant (trans)men who do? Artificial wombs call to question not only sex/gender binaries that frame the human person in aligning the maternal body with (natural) womanhood but also what it fundamentally means to be human where being naturally human, created imago dei, is predicated on fixed biological and ontological differences. The womb becomes a highly emotive site of contestation embroiled not only in the ‘politics of reproductive technology’ but also ‘fetal politics’ that pit the rights of the unborn (elevated to the status of personhood) against the rights of the pregnant woman (dehumanized as a vessel for the unborn and her pregnancy, medicalized although it is not an illness and managed, professionally and often intrusively).
Ectogenesis or the ‘invention of a complete external womb’ or ‘baby pouch’ may be the stuff that science-fiction (notably, genetically modified, hierarchically-ordered humans decanted from artificial wombs in Huxley’s Brave New World) is made of but a biotechnological breakthrough spells miracle, hope or doom depending on one’s unmet need and political and religious ideologies. In April 2017, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, lamb foetuses at the equivalent of a premature human foetus of 22-24 weeks were ‘able to successfully grow in the biobag, with the oldest lamb now more than one year old’. The ‘transparent, womb-like vessels’ in which the lamb foetuses floated in for ‘four weeks after birth’, a ‘pioneering approach’ from conventional incubators ‘could act as an urgently needed bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world for babies born at between 23-28 weeks gestation’. The ‘limit of viability for premature babies has been steadily pushed back to about 23 weeks’ as a result of previous biotechnological breakthroughs in the past decade. Where critically premature babies are by nature just ‘not ready’ to be outside their mothers’ wombs, a simulated womb affords that less-than-natural albeit critical bridge between life and death by following through the gestation period.
Related biotechnological breakthroughs include human embryos kept alive ‘outside the body for 13 days using a mix of nutrients that mimic conditions in the womb’. Scientists believe that narrowing the gap between the ‘longest time embryos can survive and the earliest time a foetus is viable (i.e. can survive)’ will facilitate the technology for ectogenesis. The benefits of ectogenesis or artificial wombs include increasing the survival rates of critically premature babies, and fertility options not only for the infertile, those past reproductive age but also those who fall outside the natural (heterosexual) family, e.g. homosexual and transgender parenting.
Today, experimentation on ‘spare, donated IVF embryos’ is governed by a legal rather than scientific limit that is likely to be reviewed, as the ‘14-day stage marks the point when the individuality of an embryo is assured, because they can no longer split into twins’. ‘Womb transplantation’ already a reality for women since 2014 (with five babies successfully born) – as many women are born ‘without a womb, and others are forced to have theirs removed due to cancer and other conditions’ – could be extended and as some would posit, should be extended on the basis of equality, for ‘transwomen who are going to want a uterus’. In July 2017, a British transmen ‘put a full sex change (sex reassignment surgery) on hold’ to give birth to a baby girl.
The reality of artificial wombs that proliferates and diversifies vessels of life, e.g. incubators, biobags and womb transplants, has obvious theological and gendered implications. Theologically, the first principle of parameters that govern technology’s service to humanity, the hierarchical ordering of God/human/nature, is transgressed: ‘Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”’ (LS, 117). The human exceeds ‘his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation’: the human becomes a co-creator of reproductive technologies that embrace the ‘culture of life’ by eschewing the ‘culture of death’ in sustaining the lives of critically premature babies or giving hope of nurturing life to those who are made worthy because they desire it (LS, 213). The second principle of anthropocentrism is similarly unsettled as the extension of life of the human is based on experimentation not only of the foetus of other species (e.g. lambs which is reminiscent of the Lamb of God) but also ‘living human embryos’: ‘There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development’ (LS, 136). It finally manifests as ‘misguided anthropocentrism,’ in the form of ‘biocentrism’; where ‘the human person is considered as simply one being among others’ (LS, 118) as ‘spare, donated IVF embryos’ like the foetuses of lambs have ‘inalienable worth’ in advancing life-giving biotechnologies.
From a gendered lens, artificial wombs firstly challenge ‘biological and repronormative discourses – those which materialize and maternalize female identity’. On the one hand, some feminists ‘construct pregnancy discrimination as sex discrimination’ in the interests of (biological) women to claim an identity politics that aligns potential motherhood with womanhood. This political standpoint inadvertently discriminates against pregnant men and transgender persons who may, as a consequence, be denied their reproductive rights. In this regard, the biological determinism of sex/gender binaries which are consonant with laws of (God-given) nature is maintained. Reproductive technologies disrupt such neat alignments of ‘sex, gender identity and identification as mother/father’ through the materialization and maternalization of men who have wombs and who desire to mother.
On the other hand, artificial wombs potentially compound the objectification even dehumanization of pregnant women in contrast to the fetal subject that achieves personhood status as a ‘child-to-be’. ‘Fetal politics’ that encompass the rituals of prenatal care which a responsible mother-to-be would subject herself to involve disembodiment (as she surrenders her autonomy and first-hand experience of pregnancy) and dependency on experts (as her pregnancy is medicalized and subjected to the surveillance of professionals, and the ubiquitous obstetrical ultrasound). The pregnant woman is almost infantalized as she is made to ‘doubt her own corporeality’ by ascribing to herself ‘developmental stages, risk figures, and hormone levels – technological abstractions that she is supposed to consider more real than what she feels and can see with her own eyes’. The fetus that the pregnant woman experiences as it is mediated via the machine becomes a ‘cyborg fetus’ and her womb rendered virtual given her disassociation with it through the technologization of her material condition. The cyborg, to conclude, as conceived by Donna Harraway, is ‘a creature in a post-gender world…[it] is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’.It engenders ‘three crucial boundary breakdowns’: human and animal, animal-human (organism) and machineand physical and non-physical. The cyborg, potentially births post-gender, post-Christian, and post-human dilemmas in dismantling sex/gender boundaries that form what is fundamentally human into a work-in-progress, stretches the relationality between human and other species and in doing so, de-centres the human in creation. The hierarchical ordering of God/human/nature is potentially dislocated and relocated through the trope of the womb; at once, cosmic, material and virtual. Reproductive technologies when appraised from a feminist theoretical, theological and political praxis serve humanity by affirming the diversity and inclusion of the human, non-human and other species, locatable as a mutually-constituted biological community.
 Pope Francis, ‘Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home’, 24 May 2015 at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
 For a fuller gendered analysis of LS, see Sharon A. Bong, ‘Not Only For the Sake of Man: Asian Feminist Theological Responses to Laudato Si’, in G. J.-S. Kim and H. P. Koster (eds), Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017, pp. 81-96.
 For a counter-argument on animal rights, see D. Slicer, ‘Your Daughter or your Dog? A Feminist Assessment of the Animal Research Issue’, Hypatia, 6, 1 (Spring, 1991), 108–24.
 See C. J. Adams, ‘Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals’, Hypatia, 6, 1 (Spring, 1991), 125-145 who argues for a more inclusive ecofeminist discourse that accords equal important to the ‘domination of animals’ as it does, the ‘domination of nature’.
 J. Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991, p. 62.
 A. Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, Durham and London: Duke University, 1999, Press, p. 90.
 Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology, p. 62.
 S. Samerski, ‘Pregnancy, personhood, and the making of the fetus’, in L. Disch and M. Hawkesworth (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 700.
 H. Sedgwick, ‘Artificial Wombs Could Soon Be a Reality. What Will this Mean for Women?’, The Guardian, 4 September 2017 at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/04/artifical-womb-women-ectogenesis-baby-fertility
 H. Devlin, ‘Artificial Wombs for Premature Babies Successful in Animal Trials’, The Guardian, 25 April 2017 at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/25/artificial-womb-for-premature-babies-successful-in-animal-trials-biobag
 Sedgwick, ‘Artificial Wombs Could Soon Be a Reality’.
 I. Sample, ‘Researchers Break Record for Keeping Lab-Grown Human Embryos Alive’, The Guardian, 5 May 2016 at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/may/04/scientists-break-record-for-keeping-lab-grown-human-embryos-alive
 H. Bodkin, ‘Sex-Change Men “Will Soon Be Able to Have Babies”’, The Telegraph, 4 November 2017 at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/11/04/babies-born-transgender-mothers-could-happen-tomorrow-fertility/
 L. Karaian, ‘Pregnant Men: Repronormativity, Critical Trans Theory and Re(Conceive)ing of Sex and Pregnancy in Law’, Social & Legal Studies, 22, 2 (2013), 211.
 Ibid., 213.
 Samerski, ‘Pregnancy, personhood, and the making of the fetus’, p. 707.
 Ibid, p. 703.
 D. J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York and London: Routledge, 1991, pp. 150–151.
 Ibid., pp. 151–152.
 Ibid., pp. 152–153.
 Ibid., pp. 153–154
Sharon A. Bong is Associate Professor in Gender and Religious Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. She graduated with a Ph.D. in Religious Studies (2002) and M.A. in Women and Religion (1997), University of Lancaster, UK. She has authored The Tension Between Women’s Rights and Religions: The Case of Malaysia (2006). She was the former coordinator of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia and a forum writer for the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.
Address: School of Arts & Social Sciences, Building 2, Level 6, Room 13 (2-6-13), Monash University Malaysia, Jalan Lagoon Selatan, 47500 Bandar Sunway, Selangor, Malaysia