What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

If everything from technology to politics will be different in the future, then so will human reproduction. That's why so much science fiction deals with the question of how humans make babies — or don't make them — in alternate worlds that are often quite close to our own. It's also why reproduction is a political issue. After all, a political campaign represents the promise of a new kind of future.

What will happen if the state takes control of human reproduction? The answers could be weirder than you think — and might terrify pro-life politicians as much as pro-choice advocates. Here are some of the scenarios supplied by science fiction.

Illustration by mondolithic

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

State-controlled reproduction is a nightmare

Perhaps the best known work of science fiction about state-controlled reproduction is Margaret Atwood's Christian fundamentalist nightmare, The Handmaid's Tale. Written in the 1980s (and adapted into a film in the 1990s), it's about what would happen if right wing Christian politicians took control of North America in the wake of a nuclear disaster that's left most of the population sterile. Women who are fertile become "handmaids" in the homes of wealthy patriarchs whose wives cannot bear children. Handmaids undergo a humiliating ritual where the patriarch tries to get them pregnant while their barren wives watch - the idea is that God will approve of this because it emulates an Old Testament scenario and the wives are participating "willingly." In reality, the system turns women into property and also sets them against each other. Atwood imagines state-regulated reproduction as a horrific combination of authoritarianism in the public sphere, and spousal abuse and rape in the domestic one.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

Other works imagine the state regulating reproduction using the carrot rather than the stick. Brave New World, published in the early 1930s during the height of the eugenics craze in the United States, imagines a future where the government breeds humans for specialized tasks. Some are designed to be strong but stupid low-caste workers, while others (the Alphas) are given perfect minds and physiques in order to take their places as societal leaders. Every child is also put through years of behavioral conditioning to reinforce their genetic predilections. The result is a society where everybody is content with their positions and sex is purely recreational. Similarly, the movie GATTACA imagines a future where everyone is genetically engineered for various class positions. Both stories include "wild type" characters, non-GMO people whose perspectives cast doubt on the justice of a system where the state determines who you are from conception onward.

You might think that these stories, to the extent that they are about gender, would be like The Handmaid's Tale, where patriarchs or a patriarchal state have decided to take away women's rights to choose how they'll reproduce. But that's simply not the case. In fact, feminist SF writer Sherri Tepper's novel The Gate to Women's Country offers an ambivalent portrait of a future matriarchal society devoted to the eugenics project of breeding men to be less violent.

You can find a similar theme even in B-movies like Hell Comes to Frogtown, set in a post-apocalyptic world where Rowdy Roddy Piper is captured by a gang of women who hook him up to a sperm-extraction machine so they can get some nice genetic material. A similar fate meets the main character in 1970s cult classic A Boy And His Dog, where a group of subterranean religious nuts capture the virile Don Johnson and hook him to their scary groin cage so they can suck out all his jizz before killing him. Both movies have elements of parody, but they also reveal fairly serious anxieties about men being raped.

The point is, the nightmare of state-controlled reproduction is something that haunts both the male and female imaginations. It's also bound closely with the fear of eugenics breeding programs and designer babies. When contemplating a future where the state takes a heavy hand in reproduction, humans worry about why, exactly, the government wants to take control. What's the payoff? A class of genetically-engineered worker bees? Babies for the chosen few?

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

When women control their own reproduction

One way to do an end-run around these questions is to focus on gender, rather than the state. What would happen if women had complete control over reproduction? This is a fantasy that a lot of feminists have had over the past century, partly as a reaction against the fears that Atwood voices in The Handmaid's Tale. Indeed, one of the first twentieth century works of science fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 novel Herland, is about a lost island ruled entirely by women who reproduce by parthenogenesis. They've developed a just society, full of women who have no conception of the "real world" in 1915, where women would never work as warriors, politicians, or doctors. When a group of men accidentally stumbles on the island, Gilman takes the opportunity to explore what it would be like for her male peers to fall in love with women who treat men as their equals.

While Gilman's Herland is arguably a Utopia, feminists of the later twentieth century weren't so sure that a society controlled by women would actually be much better than old-fashioned authoritarian patriarchy. In the James Tiptree, Jr. story "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", author Alice Sheldon imagines what would happen if some astronauts were knocked off course, Planet of the Apes style, and found themselves orbiting an Earth of the future. A plague has wiped out most of the Earth's population, including all the men, and women are now reproducing through cloning. Their culture has remained fairly stagnant, and the astronauts dream of taking over the female population through their amazing powers of leadership — or just through sexual conquest. Unlike the women in Herland, Sheldon's women couldn't care less about the men. They study the men, possibly getting ready for the old sperm extraction manoeuvre, and then plan to kill them.

Joanna Russ' short story "When It Changed" takes a similarly dim view of what an all-female society on a faraway planet would think about the first men they've encountered. Male astronauts arrive, treat the women condescendingly, and then claim that women on Earth have equal rights. The women have to restrain themselves from killing the men because the male point of view seems so obviously poisonous. In Nicola Griffith's novel Ammonite, the whole "male explorers arrive" problem is solved neatly. A planet full of women who reproduce using parthenogenesis are lucky enough to be immune to a planet-wide pathogen that kills all men. Any male astronauts will die immediately upon arrival, and all the happy lesbians are able to continue on their merry way.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

Other authors, most notably Lois McMaster Bujold, imagine that women will take control of reproduction without needing to form female-dominated societies. Many of Bujold's science fiction novels include plots that revolve partly or entirely around the widespread use of "uterine replicators," or artificial wombs. In the novel Barrayar, our hero introduces the uterine replicator to her husband's patriarchal planet and proceeds to save the world. Similarly, the hero of Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake is a doctor who can manufacture personalized medicines using her own (modified) body as a chemistry lab. A side-effect of her powers is that she has complete control over when and how she becomes pregnant. In both novels, it's clear that part of what allows our women to be heroes is that they live in worlds where they control reproductive technologies.

Though some pundits claim that feminists want to destroy all men, it's clear from this broad range of stories by women that there is hardly a consensus about how awesome things would be if we could just have a matriarchy, or a world where women controlled reproduction. Even Gilman's female Utopia in Herland welcomes men, and the novel eventually becomes a story about how men and women who are equals can still love each other. Perhaps the most radical of these stories, "When It Changed" and Ammonite, are about women's ambivalence about female power. Russ and Griffith's characters prefer to live without men, but they show us female societies full of violence, strife, and problems.

The problem with abortion

When I was in seventh grade, I read a post-apocalyptic novel by Walter Tevis called Mockingbird that had a profound effect on me. I strongly identified with the characters, who were trying to preserve writing in a post-literate society. But one thing really confused me. To show how awful this future world was, Tevis noted that there were robots on every corner who would give an abortion on demand. Wait, what? As a horny teenage girl, a future full of free, anonymous robot abortion sounded pretty good. But Tevis was hardly the only science fiction writer who thought my idea of Utopia was a nightmare.

In the 1970s, Philip K. Dick made a permanent enemy of Joanna Russ and thousands of other pro-choice activists by writing a short story called "The Pre-Persons." It was about how Roe v. Wade would lead to a world where kids could be "aborted" until their souls entered their bodies — which the US government arbitrarily defined as the moment a child could learn algebra. By that logic, suggests Dick's main character, any adult who has forgotten algebra should be aborted too.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

Dick, who described himself as anti-abortion, hit upon a science fiction trope that hasn't changed much since his story was published. Just a few years ago, Neal Shusterman's young adult novel Unwind dealt with almost the same scenario as "The Pre-Persons" — in it, parents can choose to "unwind" their teenagers, or kill them and allow doctors to harvest their organs. Similarly, in the recent stories Never Let Me Go, The Island, and House of the Scorpion, people are allowed to commission clones of themselves who will be raised to adulthood and then harvested for organs. In all of these tales, the soon-to-be-aborted organ donors are shown to be fully human, complex people whose lives are being tragically cut short by horrifically immoral laws.

These stories work with typical science fiction logic, asking how a current political issue (in this case, abortion) might evolve in the future. The fear driving these stories is twofold. First, they raise the question of whether it's appropriate for humans to set an arbitrary distinction between "alive" and "not alive" in the womb, allowing people to abort the latter but not the former. Second, these stories ask whether widespread abortion will usher in radically immoral social systems where people can legally kill autonomous adults for arbitrary reasons like not knowing algebra, or being born a clone.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

Another crop of novels suggests that we're ridiculously human-centric for even thinking that these are moral issues. The Color of Distance, The Algebraist, and Triad all feature alien societies where adults routinely kill their children. In The Color of Distance, by Amy Thomson, a human scientist is appalled when she realizes the squid-like aliens she's been living with are regularly eating their own tadpoles. Any tadpole lucky enough to escape being eaten is allowed to mature into a teenager, but only a tiny handful of those teenagers — the smartest and most agile — will be allowed to become adults. The rest are killed. Thomson is careful to point out that the aliens think the human scientist is complete crazy for wanting to preserve every child. It would be completely unsustainable, and destroy their planet.

In The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks introduces us to the Dwellers, gas giant creatures who cheerfully watch their children being killed in the midst of a particularly dangerous airship manoeuvre. Like Thomson's aliens, the Dwellers simply don't fetishize the idea of preserving children's lives at all costs. Once a person has proven to be a competent adult, they have worth. But protecting a child just for the sake of "life" seems, to these aliens, simply wasteful and potentially destructive.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

The real issue is child-rearing

All the stories I've discussed up to this point focus on reproductive rights as an issue that centers basically on conception. Mostly, they ask: Who controls how we have babies, and who says what kinds of babies we can have?

But I would argue that the real issue lurking beneath the surface of those questions is a single, stark query: Who is responsible for raising children?

This certainly goes a long way to explaining why concerns about aborting fetuses can so easily morph into concerns about raising teenagers, as they do in tales like Unwind. It also explains why the stories I discussed earlier, about the state controlling reproduction, are often implicitly or explicitly about eugenics. The goal of a eugenics breeding program isn't to control reproduction; it's to control the population. And that takes us into the realms of child-rearing, education, and ultimately the state control of adults.

One of the often-neglected aspects of the reproductive rights debate is that when women ask to control their reproductive systems, they aren't just saying they want to have sex without fear of pregnancy. Of course pregnancy sucks, and certainly the Alien movies demonstrate in fantastical detail why childbirth is completely gross. Controlling reproduction is more fundamentally about controlling the fates of children, and the adults who care for them.

Children, after all, represent years and years of work. Parenting may be a joy, but it's also undeniably a form of labor that can last a lifetime. So science fiction about reproductive issues often winds up focusing a lot on parenting — the good, the bad, and the ugly of being in charge of a child.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

There was a creepy subplot on Battlestar Galactica where Starbuck is captured by the Cylons, threatened with forced impregnation, and is later imprisoned as the "wife" of the Cylon Leoben. She murders Leoben every time he comes into her prison cell (which she can do because there are a zillion copies of every Cylon), until he brings her a child he claims is hers. Suddenly, Starbuck is emotionally compromised. She wants to protect the child, though part of her wants to kill it, and as a result she can no longer focus on fighting Leoben. The arrival of this child is in many ways more traumatic than Starbuck's forced reproduction because it divides her loyalties and is an emotional distraction.

The idea that child-rearing divides our attention, making us less fit for heroism, is a theme in the Terminator series too. Though Sarah Connor is an incredible hero, she is often portrayed a bad mother, or at least a troubled one. John Connor has been raised in foster homes, as we learn in Terminator 2. In the Sarah Connor Chronicles series, Sarah struggles with devoting time to child-rearing when she has so many other responsibilities. Child-rearing, for women, provokes anxiety because it's so much work — and like Sarah Connor, they often have to do it mostly alone. The eponymous hero of Max Barry's corporate dystopia novel Jennifer Government is, like Sarah Connor, a single mother fighting impossibly brutal enemies. Jennifer's child is never far from her mind, and she's constantly having to take time off from her crime-fighting for mother duties in a way that Batman never would.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

Men do struggle with single fatherhood in tales from Enemy Mine and The Road, to Deep Space Nine and Real Steel, and they are often just as torn apart by it as Sarah Connor is. Generally they have to carve out new emotional space for their children, as Hugh Jackman's character does in Real Steel. This can also mean acknowledging that they are unprepared for the rigors of juggling daily work life with daily child-rearing responsibilities. Captain Sisko on Deep Space Nine is probably the least troubled of the bunch in these stories, partly because he's lucky enough to have a self-sufficient, smart kid in Jake, and partly because it seems like the entire space station is willing to help him take care of his son.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

Of course sometimes child-rearing is so awful that parents secretly wish they had aborted their kids. Certainly we can see this dark side of parenting in creepy-child movies like The Omen or even The Brood. In the world of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the mother leaves her emotionally distraught child-mecha David by the side of the road when he becomes too needy. And in classic short story "It's a GOOD Life," which became a famous Twilight Zone episode, a child with psychic powers controls everyone in his small town, threatening to send them "to the cornfield" if they show even a hint of displeasure at his bratty behavior. The message in these narratives is clear: The only thing worse than not controlling how you have children is not being able to control your children once they arrive.

It might be useful, as we contemplate the futures offered by science fiction and politics, to consider that the struggle over reproductive rights is really a struggle over parenting. It's not about when the child becomes "alive;" it's who will take care of the child when he's running around the holodeck. And it's not about the state forcing certain people to remain pregnant; it's about the state forcing certain people to spend two decades of their lives devoting an enormous amount of labor to child-rearing.

What does science fiction tell us about the future of reproductive rights?

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley asked what kind of society would be produced by a government that grew and reared children in laboratories. Today's science fiction urges us to ask similar questions about governments that force women and men to rear children that they don't want, cannot afford, and who require work that the adults around them simply cannot perform. What kind of world are we creating when humans cannot prevent unwanted children from being born? More to the point, we have to ask what those children will think of us when they realize how much more political effort has been put into regulating reproduction than into child-rearing, schools, and activities for young people.

Right now, we live in a world that ignores the importance, expense, and labor of child-rearing. The more we neglect these issues, the more likely it is that our children won't mature into the kinds of autonomous adults who can prevent the equally horrific futures of The Handmaid's Tale and "The Pre-Persons."

(Thanks to these folks on Twitter who helped me brainstorm for this essay: @lnaturale @theunread @treebiology @furrygirl @eridani99 @kwameopam @tcarmody @doingitwrong @annegalloway @Garratt_J @EllenDatlow @stephdavidson @megancarpentier @kristenmchugh22 @lisaeckstein and many more!)