Labour saving devices

 
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By Khaled Diab

Could pregnancy outside the womb save women the pain of labour and herald in a new level of gender equality?

13 August 2009

There is something mysterious, mystifying, magical and also menacing about pregnancy. The swelling belly, rising like a bun in the oven. The wall of tissue separating mother and father from child. The foetus’s tentative attempts to communicate pleasure, dissatisfaction, and hold conversations through the primitive Morse code of kicks and jabs.

For the expectant mother in particular, pregnancy carries a huge emotional cache. The foetus growing inside her is both a part of her and apart from her which enables the mother to bond in a way that a father can only dream of. The umbilical cord connecting them relays not only nourishment but also moods and emotions.

I witness this in my wife whose bond with our baby grows stronger every day: her regular communion with him, the unconscious way she holds her tummy, the subtle nuances conveyed by the way he shifts inside, and the meaning of the different pokes. Of course, I also have a connection with him – albeit a less direct one. I talk to him and see the surface evidence of his development, his faint taps through Katleen’s skin, the rare grainy glimpse of him during our visits to the gynaecologist.

In addition, he and the cat seem, after an initial period of distrust on the part of the cat, to have built something of a relationship: he pokes more when Kuku comes to lie on Katleen’s belly and even seems to hum when the cat purrs.

What sense does the baby have of the outside world from inside his cocoon? I know he can hear and feel and I wonder what he makes of his mama, papa and cat. I imagine what it must be like inside the womb – I know we have all been there but how many of us can remember? Is it as cosy and comfortable as we adults like to assume? Or would the little one, curled up in the proverbial foetal position, prefer more legroom and a womb with a view?

When it’s time to leave, will he miss the security of his confinement and the 24-hour womb service? Or will he let out a scream of delight as he dives head first towards the everyday light at the end of the tunnel and the official start of his life?

Understandably, Katleen does not yet want to think about the actual delivery (D-Day) – and I can’t blame her. It fills me with awe, bewilderment and panic – and my role is only a supporting one! Despite the undoubted pleasure and significance of bringing a life into this world, the process does involve an awful lot of pain.

Is it desirable for medical science to find a way to spare women the suffering of labour – create a new kind of labour-saving device? Perhaps some boffins will go beyond the initial spark in a petri dish at the core of IVF treatment and develop a complete incubation system – an artificial womb – that would host the unborn child for the entire nine months of the pregnancy, and the parents would pay regular visits to the incubator to watch their child develop.

Such a for-now SciFi possibility would enable men and women to play equal roles as prospective parents, and enable women once and for all to take full control of their bodies, and may even be healthier for the foetus as the womb would be perfectly calibrated for it.

The pill and other effective contraceptive devices helped not only to trigger the sexual revolution – transforming sex into a largely risk-free leisure activity – but they also evened the sexual playing field between men and women, helping cement ideas of equality.

Perhaps removing the last major biological distinction between men and women would herald in a new dawn of equality, but if it becomes universal enough, it would raise the profound and fundamental question of why we need men and women – and the battle of the sexes could take on a decidedly nihilistic bent. Alternatively, just as sex has evolved from procreation to recreation, perhaps nostalgia and love of diversity would lead to us holding on to our biological differences for the sheer fun of it.

On the down side, such technology may banish the pain and discrimination associated with pregnancy, but it would also rob women off its joys. Moreover, it may be bad for the child. Millions of years of evolution have made the bond formed between mother and foetus crucial to the psychological health and well-being of the baby; tampering with that could cause massive alienation and erase the loving link between them.

Moreover, is the price of the possible convenience worth paying, considering the physical and psychological deformities it could potentially cause as we feel around blindly in this largely uncharted field? In addition, even if the science one day proves sound, the associated ethical conundrums should give us pause for thought as it could affect society in ways that end up harming men, women and babies. At the end of the day, removing pain from the equation may not actually bring about a gain.

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Birth of a new order

 
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By Khaled Diab

A revolution is on the way and it’s going to change everything – in our house.

21 July 2009

Fertility dollSleeper cells are awakening and an embryonic plot is taking shape. Small but powerful underground forces are massing – even the occasional lashing out has been reported. Great change is on the horizon.

No, this is not some movement to overthrow the government or bring in a new world order. In fact, the revolution is so localised that its ripples are unlikely to reach far outside our house. This revolutionary force is positioning itself to turn our lives upside down; to subjugate us and liberate us; to plunder our resources, but win our hearts and minds.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re having a baby.

I realise that the two opening paragraphs sound melodramatic but that’s kind of how it feels. For years, I’ve smiled indulgently when friends told me how having a child completely changed their lives. Of course we were aware, on a theoretical level, of some of the transformations that accompany parenthood.

That is partly why we took so long – the good part of a decade together – before we decided to take the giant leap from recreation to procreation. We bravely resisted the bangs of the baby boom surrounding us.

With the familial urge failing to swell up inside my bosom, I was even beginning to reconcile myself to the prospect of being forever childless. Some see this as selfish, and at some level it is.

But isn’t having a child also selfish in other ways?

Concerns aside, something imperceptible, like a continental drift, recently began to shift inside us. Then, one day, we decided to leave it to fate and, judging by her speed, Lady Fortune was in a hurry. But her timing was a little rotten.

The evening we discovered that we had crossed a very thin but significant blue line, our contemplations of the probable life forming inside my wife were cut short by her departure the very next morning for a fortnight with mine survivors in the Far East, where she had to deal with the immensity of the changes about to beset her by herself.

Even when still an embryo a few cells across, it’s amazing how much influence an unborn child exerts. There are the lifestyle changes, like cutting out booze and caffeine (my two favourite drugs), full-time for my wife; part-time for me.

You also begin to notice things that had obviously existed in another dimension before, but have now managed to worm themselves through time-space to cross your path, including prenatal shops and gynaecology wards. Then, there are all the practicalities, such as booking creches well in advance because of the waiting lists.

There’s also the gradual shifting of physical and visual centres of gravity. Suddenly, navel-gazing becomes the most entertaining pastime in the world, and my wife’s slowly swelling tummy has grown, quite literally, into an object of immense fascination to us as we try to connect with the impenetrable netherworld of the womb.

Of course, the inevitable speculations about how the child will look kick in – and with our transcontinental backgrounds, the palette of possibilities is quite broad. Our main hope is that the baby will bear something of both of us. Given that my role during the pregnancy is largely that of an observer and assistant, I’ve had more space to let the wild horses of my imagination gallop.

A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but a child’s name can actually have a significant impact on their lives. In our case, if it is too Arab-sounding, it will overlook the child’s European heritage – and vice-versa. Meanwhile, the range of names common to both cultures is quite limited and, in many cases, overused by people in our situation – so the hunt continues.

Language is another issue. Between us, we speak half a dozen languages, and we want to raise our child to be fluent in three of them. So is culture. We want our child to grow up with a keen awareness of its different cultural heritages, and to be comfortable with them. Later in life, (s)he can choose to belong to all of them, one of them or none of them.

The idea of becoming parents still sounds outlandish to us. For the first 35 years of my life, parents were other people, and I was just plain old “Khaled”. Now when our kid starts referring to me as “dad” or “baba” or even “pffft”, I will feel like a bit of an impostor! But for our future child, our status as parents will seem like the most natural, and perhaps irritating, thing in the world – and (s)he will also think parents are other people.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 18 July 2009. Read the related discussion.

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