The 2021 film Dune picked up six Oscars. A sequel will appear later this year covering the second half of the massive 1965 saga by Frank Herbert which inspired the film.
Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before his death in 1986. His son and a collaborator published a dozen or more novels about the Dune universe. Anyone who persevered past the original Dune has probably heard of the “axlotl tanks”, a mysterious technology used by Tleilaxu scientists to incubate living human beings from the cells of a cadaver.
It turns out that these axlotl tanks are brain-dead Tleilaxu women who act as surrogate mothers. In one of the sequels, Heretics of Dune, a minor character, Miles Teg, has dim memories of his incubation; it is described as a kind of repulsive exploitation of the reproductive capacities of the female body:
The axlotl tanks! He remembered emerging time after time: bright lights and padded mechanical hands. The hands rotated him and, in the unfocused blurs of the newborn, he saw a great mound of female flesh—monstrous in her almost immobile grossness…a maze of dark tubes linked her body to giant metal containers.
That paragraph is supposed to gross you out. “Yes, the Tleilaxu did loathsome things,” Herbert writes in his second Dune novel, Dune Messiah.
Notwithstanding this unpromising vision of surrogate technology, a Norwegian bioethicist has revived the idea. And it hasn’t grossed her out. Far from it. Writing in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, Anna Smajdor, of the University of Olso, in Norway, makes an argument for a contemporary version of axlotl tanks.
In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that there are 18 brain stem dead persons per million people. Some of these will be women with functioning reproductive systems. Why should their wombs go to waste? We know that “brain-dead” women can carry pregnancies to term; why shouldn’t pregnancies be initiated to help childless couples?
Smajdor argues that these unfortunate women could be employed as gestational surrogates – assuming, of course, that they have made an advance directive in which they explicitly permit their bodies to be used this way. She calls her scheme “whole body gestational donation” (WBGD).
This is not a new idea, although there doesn’t seem to be a conceptual link to Dune. An Australian bioethicist, Paul Gerber, mooted it in 1988. “I can’t see anything wrong with it and at least the dead would be doing some good,” he said.
In 2000 an Israeli doctor, Rosalie Ber, revived the idea. She speculated that the bodies of women in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) could be used to gestate babies until ectogenesis — the growth of babies in artificial wombs — becomes possible.
Smajdor refines Ber’s proposal. She believes that PVS patients are problematic — it is remotely possible that they could recover. However, despite some critics, ”the use of brain stem death criteria for determining when a patient’s life is effectively at an end is widespread in the context of organ donation”. In other words, she would treat a brain-stem dead woman as a kind of organ donor.
“States and health services should adapt their policies and procedures to allow for WBGD among other donation options,” Smajdor writes. It could become another aspect of opt-out organ donation systems.
In the years since Gerber and Ber made their proposals, surrogacy has made great strides. It has become more common and has attracted more criticism. On the one hand, commercial surrogacy helps childless couples, single men and women, and gay couples achieve their dreams of being parents. On the other, surrogacy exploits desperately poor women in underdeveloped countries.
Smajdor realises that the surrogacy industry is morally tainted. But using the bodies of brain-stem dead women would not exploit them – not at least in the way that Mexican or Guatemalan or Ukrainian women are being exploited.
“If WBGD is viewed as a straightforward means of facilitating safer reproduction, and avoiding the moral problems of surrogacy, we should be ready to embrace it as a logical and beneficial extension of activities that we already treat as being morally unproblematic,” she writes.
There is another hurdle. Feminists are bound to object that WBGD objectifies women’s bodies. Smajdor agrees: “WBGD is quite straightforwardly the use of the body as a foetal container”.
However, what if men’s bodies were adapted to serve as foetal incubators? That would level the ethical playing field. Exploitation and objectification may be problems, but what if male and female bodies were equally exploited and objectified?
The technology for womb transplants is improving rapidly and it is conceivable that a male – a natal male, that is – could carry a child to term. “The prospect of the male gestator could thus appease some feminists who might otherwise feel that brain-dead gestation is a step too far in the objectification of women’s reproductive functions,” Smajdor says.
And that’s not all — it’s hard to do justice to Smajdor’s creativity. The scope of her vision for the future of procreation leaves Frank Herbert in the dust. Ideally, she would like to do away with pregnancy altogether. “Pregnancy itself should properly speaking be medically contra-indicated for women generally,” she says.
Pregnancy is risky, she says, far more so than, say, measles. The global health community has resolved to eradicate this dangerous disease, so it stands to reason that a dangerous experience like pregnancy should be eradicated as well. “We cannot yet forego the uterus altogether for the reproduction of our species,” Smajdor says. “But we can transfer the risks of gestation to those who are no longer able to be harmed by them.”
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Are you grossed out by whole body gestational donation and the reasoning which defends it? I am. When Herbert wrote: “Yes, the Tleilaxu did loathsome things,” he was imagining a technology set 10,000 years in the future. He was short-sighted; that future could be just around the corner. Alarmist? Probably, but in a world where patients are being euthanised for their organs it’s no longer implausible.
WBGD is the kind of proposal which keeps on emerging from contemporary bioethics. The human body is a mere tool and the only limit on exploiting it is “informed consent” from a patient. These are two of the principal assumptions which underpin the theory of transgenderism. That’s why it is a battleground issue. If we give ground, bioethicists are ready to start cooking up even more loathsome proposals.