Single fatherhood by choice: Implications of the artificial womb

The idea of an artificial womb is not new and is far from settled. Theorized on for decades and featured in many well-known works of science fiction, this still-abstract device would take the place of a woman during the gestation and birth of a child. Artificial wombs have been discussed on A Voice for Men, as well as in other publications, exploring its implications for feminism and for women in general. Various MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) bloggers and YouTubers have covered the topic, often singing the artificial womb’s praises as a tool for men to fulfill their desire for parenthood without needing the involvement of an unwelcome woman.

The artificial womb seems inevitable; mankind is very good at creating devices to replace our biological functions, especially vital or costly ones. At first it will be used by women unable to naturally carry a child, but eventually it will become available to the general public. Some commentators have suggested that feminists will fight to keep men from using it; they may, but they will lose. The artificial womb will be a service provided by private companies and they will service anyone who pays.

At some point, maybe in 10 years or maybe in 200, men will be able to have a child without any woman being involved. The big question is what will happen then.

Single parenthood by choice is already a very real thing. Over 40% of children in the United States are born to parents out of wedlock and a similar percentage of single parents have never been married, adding up to over 1 in 10 children living with a single parent who has never been married, overwhelmingly mothers. Many had children knowing they wouldn’t marry; for those more upfront with their intentions, there are sperm banks allowing any woman to conceive independently. Women have become empowered almost to infinity to have children if, when, and with whom they choose. For the latter, it seems a great many choose “with no one” when it comes to including a father in the lives of their children.

There is far more social science on single mothers and their children than can be repeated here, but to say the least this lifestyle choice is less than advisable. There is far less data on single fathers, however. Even if there was, it would largely be limited to divorced fathers and their children; true single fathers by choice are a rarity, currently achievable only through adoption, surrogacy, or a similar arrangement. Most single fathers become such by being widowed, an event beyond their control, or through divorce, an event almost always in the control of their spouse.

The artificial womb will change that. Armed with their own sperm and a donated or lab-grown ovum, paternally inclined but bachelor-minded men will be able to walk into a lab and leave with a polished decanter brimming with life. Since it will be his sole choice, even a man in a relationship could go about securing one of these bottle-babies without consulting his partner; it’ll be his choice, and hers to leave or stay. No strings, baby, and in this case no child support.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World envisioned a world similar to this, but the reality will be far more dynamic. Conventional families will not cease to exist, but a new flavor will come into being: single fathers by choice. For the first time in human history, men will have the choice to become biological fathers when they wish, independent of anyone else’s biology.

Obviously, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s only logical to assume children of single fathers will face all the problems endured by the children of single mothers, but adult men and women will both be in control of their reproduction (surely there’ll be male birth control by the time we have an artificial womb) and will become parents either when they and a partner choose to do so together or when the individuals elect to walk that path alone. Problems will arise, as they do now, when people do so ignorant of the true challenges of parenthood and undertake the duty without being prepared.

Even when they prove capable, though, what will the rest of us think? All things being equal, there is little chance society will treat single mothers and fathers by choice the same. As mentioned above, there surely will be feminist blowback against the use of artificial wombs by men. These people don’t even want men in schools, no less raising children unsupervised. Traditionalists will also look askance at this new breed of fathers. They don’t understand parenthood, detractors will say, labeling men unprepared to take on the once feminine role of prenatal caretaker. It’d be like a woman trying to … well, no, there’s nothing women aren’t thought capable of doing anymore. But if there were something we still thought men did more naturally than women, it’d be like a woman trying to do that.

There will also be social planning concerns voiced. Overpopulation is already considered a problem by many, and some worry that an artificial womb will make producing children even easier (is that possible?), removing all physical burdens and thereby risking rampant, irresponsible reproduction (cough cough, clearly not a problem now). This fear is unlikely to materialize, though. Humanity often bases technology off nature, but we rarely match the sheer ruggedness and efficiency of evolution. Artificial wombs will be prohibitively expensive, and even as they come down in price they will likely remain more costly than a woman carrying a child. For single dads, this may even out due to the cost savings of being single, but it will not be cheap. That means more work and less leisure spending. Some will still take on parenthood lightly, but just as now it won’t be a good idea to do so. It will be hard work, whether for a couple, a single woman, or a single man, and these people will have to live with their responsibilities.

Presumably fetuses of artificial wombs will be treated the same as those of regular wombs, except controlled by (in such cases) the single father, meaning the same rights for abortion, legal surrender, and adoption. All in all, the artificial womb would do much to level the reproductive playing field. Women would no longer hold the monopoly on gestation, making relationships more honest and letting everyone choose when to become a parent.

There will still be differences, however, the greatest of which is sex (the verb, not the noun). It’s unlikely the average woman will embrace the artificial womb enough to sterilize herself and rely on the machine for reproduction. Most men wouldn’t want to have a vasectomy and then rely on stem cells to grow new sperm either. Our reproductive abilities are part of our identity, and most people don’t want to give that up. Just as sperm banks serve as a replacement (or at least broker) for male reproduction, the artificial womb will stand in for a woman.

So while men will become able to reproduce using an artificial womb, women will still have the option of reproducing naturally but parenting singularly. Conception through sex will still be the norm, which raises the issue of “accidental” (are scare quotes scarier in italics?) pregnancies. In the United States, nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Some number is inevitable while people have sex with imperfect birth control, but there can be no unintended pregnancies with an artificial womb. Its use will be deliberate, rational, and fully consensual. Every child born from one will have to be wanted, at least at the time of conception. This will lend an air of responsibility to those who use it, leading to higher expectations on them since they forfeit the out of “it just happened.” Even more so for our new breed of single fathers by choice. They will be the ones to have stepped out of the chains of biology entirely and chosen, fully knowing and with undeniable intent, to become a father.

How will this affect unintended biological pregnancies? How many husbands faced with an unplanned child would wish one party or the other had had their tubes tied so they could’ve just used an artificial womb when they were actually ready. Finally having an option aside from raw biology, will fewer men tolerate women’s abysmally high rate of birth control fraud Paternity fraud too: “Pregnancy is too hard on you, honey. Let’s use an artificial womb.” That way I can know it’s my sperm swimming around in there.

Then there’s the bar of excellence for single parenthood in general. Certain judgy individuals have asserted that single fathers are more desirable partners because they don’t have a meaningful choice in the matter, making single fatherhood a badge of good character. When men can wilfully choose to become single parents, that will change and they will be responsible for helping their child avoid the many pitfalls of single parenthood. Men will not only become the paragon of the parentally empowered but will also be forced to set a new standard for parental responsibility. Even today, if a man puts his sperm in a woman (or even if she puts it there without his permission), he is held fully and inescapably responsible for it. If he puts that same sperm in a jar and grows a baby independent of a woman, you can be damn sure we are all going to expect him to be the best parent he possibly can, and if he does it when he isn’t ready it’ll be his screw-up. Male hyperagency will extend to single fatherhood by choice, leaving no room for excuses. Single fatherhood will no longer always be foisted on men, but even those who do choose it will be held fully accountable.

This will lead to discrimination against men, excessive criticism, and persecution for parental wrongs that would be overlooked were it a mother. But at the same time there will be the many cases of single fathers by choice being successful parents. Since there will be more effort involved and higher expectations to meet, men will not often become fathers on a mere whim. How will this affect our views on single mothers by choice? Biology isn’t a machine, so birth control does and will continue to fail and there will be genuinely accidental babies. But half? That’s bullshit and we all know it. Some unknown but not inconsiderable proportion of those conceptions are due to the woman either (a) choosing to become pregnant but hiding behind the “it just happened” excuse or (b) throwing caution to the wind and actually letting it just happen, consequences (and partner) be damned.

But what if their monopoly were broken? Women are given free reign over their reproduction because we don’t have an alternative. The artificial womb will change that. Female biology will no longer be the sole carrier of the next generation, and as the free market teaches us, competition will breed performance. With reproduction harnessed by science, how much longer will irresponsible behavior be allowed to slide?

When men gain control over their reproduction and face that responsibility like rational adults, women will have to change their game plan. Single mothers by choice will face greater scrutiny alongside their male counterparts and their motivations will more readily be called into question. Some will call it victim-blaming, but when birth control and abortion are so readily available there really is no excuse, and the artificial womb will only add to that. Like adoption, artificial womb babies will be taken on only by choice, but unlike adoption there will be no chance of a history of abuse or attachment problems, and the full biological connection will be there to encourage a healthy relationship.

By showing how single parenthood can be done better, it is likely that the advent of the artificial womb will cause single motherhood by choice to sharply decline. It’s not that men will make better single parents, but entering parenthood will not be so casual a choice for them. Just as it would be if women had to take a pill to get pregnant, rather than to not, the greater will required to become a single father will mean fewer of the unprepared will undertake that course, leading to a higher proportion of fit parents and therefore healthy children. Expectations on single parents will increase, awareness of the social ills faced by their children will grow, and a man will be less willing to put up with single mothers since he can now have a kid on his own. In that regard, artificial wombs may help combat overpopulation: women won’t be able to get away with so much bad behavior anymore and will be held to task for their choices, so they’ll be forced to be more responsible and stop having so many children they are incapable of caring for.

There are and always will be exceptions, of course. Many children raised today by single mothers are healthy and happy. Some men who have children via artificial wombs will go on to neglect or abuse them. What matters is getting to a place where people, men and women, become parents only when they want to, and never when they aren’t ready for it. It’s time we stop allowing parenthood by force and condoning irresponsible reproduction. The artificial womb will help achieve that by giving men reproductive autonomy and breaking the female monopoly on childbearing that forces us to overlook their misconduct.

That’s a brave new world I can get behind.

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