Science Fiction & Reproductive Rights

I believe strongly in reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. Many of these beliefs were encouraged through the science fiction & fantasy I read and watched growing up. Some of these stories imagine utopian equality, others, horrific dystopian warnings. Both takes had their impact.

The panelists for the titular panel at WorldCon 80, otherwise known as ChiCon8 were: Amy Salley, Mark Painter, and Valerie Estelle Frankel, and moderated by Kelli Fitzpatrick.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has put the battle for reproductive freedom front and center in the national conversation. What kind of insights and inspiration can we gain from science fictional depictions of reproduction? SF’s concerns over creating life go back at least to Frankenstein, and many authors over the years have played around with utopian, dystopian, and transformational ideas about reproductive rights and technologies, including cloning, artificial wombs, and different (sometimes alien) approaches to pregnancy, birth, and childcare. We’ll discuss our favorite hopeful futures, and highlight strategies and ideas for the ongoing fight.

How Does Reproductive Freedom Work?

Reproductive freedom is the right to decide when to reproduce, and with whom (provided both sides consent). Obviously, biology and health play a large role in what options are available to each individual, but reproductive freedoms include the ability to choose:

  • When, how, and with whom implantation occurs
  • To gestate
  • To birth a child
  • To raise a child
  • Bodily autonomy

The main discussion giving rights to the unborn started in 1975, before then, people often waited until after ‘the quickening’ (when you first know you’re feeling the baby kick). In earlier times, babies weren’t named for the first few weeks/months, because so many were lost, and labor was so dangerous for both mother and child. These days, we have a lot of intervention options, but despite the perception, there are so many factors in labor, that very few can be considered ‘routine’.

Discussions of population control are hard without turning into just another way to control which women are allowed to conceive, and which are not.

A lot of the current model puts the majority of the burden on the partner with the womb, despite the side effects most hormonal or other birth controls have, and the toll a pregnancy takes on their body. Social stigma judges those having sex, those who become pregnant, those who give up their children, those who keep children they are not prepared to care for, those who have children in daycare, and those who stay at home. No matter what your choice, society is judging you for doing it wrong.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Takes on Reproductive Freedom

When science fiction and fantasy delve into the realm of reproductive freedom, the usual end result is separating sex from reproduction. By exploring options in science-fiction and fantasy, they take reproductive choices out of the current cultural context and allow the reader to experience a mindset regarding reproductive choices taken to the N-th degree.

Some get it right, and some get it wrong. Here are some of the examples from the panelists.

  • In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, sex is seen as a sacred and holy event, but they have 100% effective female birth control
  • In Lois Bujold’s VorKosigan series, on Barrayar, uterine replicators gestate babies, and humans do not go through labor.
  • In John Varley’s 8 Worlds series, you can clone yourself and move your consciousness to a new body
  • In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the few women with reproductive capabilities are commoditized and used as prizes for the politically high ranked.
  • In Orphan Black, explores the government controlling clones…
  • In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the people are ambisexual, and have policies regarding leave from work, because it’s a world where anyone’s gender might change with no warning
  • Becky Chamber’s The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet – a feel-good tale of non-conformity, gender fluidity, multiculturalism and unorthodox sexual relationships
  • James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston, do you read? – Astronauts come back to an all-male Earth… 300 years later.
  • Witcher (and Marvel) show main female characters, doing unreasonable things in the pursuit of motherhood (Yennifer and the Scarlett Witch)
  • In Star Wars, Padme apparently died of sadness and pregnancy?
  • In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, they have reliable birth control for humans, the griffin’s reproductivity is wizard controlled — allegedly so that all griffin babies would be wanted and created on purpose.
  • Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild – aliens keep humanity control, free to live their lives… as long as we play host to their larvae.
  • Star Trek
    • parasitic Gorn eggs that would use humans as hosts, then violently hatch
    • In The Next Generation, there’s an episode where the ship has a baby
    • In Discovery, they find a Sentient AI
    • When Miles & Kiko create an embryo, Kira becomes Kiko’s surrogate, so Kiko can keep her job
  • 300 – shows Sparta’s infanticide practice
  • Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate To Women’s Country – Men are only allowed in on certain days.
  • Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood – Tentacled aliens arrive to save humanity… and crossbreed with them.
  • Lois Lowry’s The Giver – Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units…

What other examples are you familiar with? Who gets it right? Who gets it wrong?
And who explores new options — be they good, bad, or ugly.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. So dear that my friend Patrick and I do live stream fundraisers for reproductive rights, scheduled on alternating Monday evenings, from 9-midnight Eastern Time. We do query rewrites or looks at first pages or synopsis. (Youtube | Twitch)

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