At first glance, birth control doesn’t seem to figure much in dystopian novels. Most of the characters we meet in dystopias these days are more likely facing a problem of infertility than a dread of pregnancy, and few of the novels take us into the privacy of our heroes’ bedrooms to see what protections are at hand. On closer look, though, we find that the most invasive dystopian societies don’t stop at controlling their citizens’ public behavior. They enforce systems to stymie reproductive freedom, and that leads to forced abstinence, bedding rituals, drugs, and implants. Such controls threaten our favorite characters where it matters most, and once pushed too far, they find a whole new way to rebel.
One dehumanizing scene in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) describes a ritual meant to ensure that the right handmaid is impregnated by the right man at the right time. The coupling is out of wedlock but endorsed by the man’s wife, since any child produced would belong to the married couple. What happens above the garage with the chauffeur becomes a form of rebellion the handmaid can effect through her own body. The act is private, but it’s still treason, and that makes it all the more powerful.
As in Atwood’s novel, diminishing populations in Lauren DeStefano’s Wither (2011) and my novel Prized (2011) ostensibly justify the control of women’s reproductive rights in two more futuristic settings. Three teen sister-wives in Wither are forced into polygamous marriage, where it is hoped they’ll bear children before they hit their own expiration dates at age twenty. The honored class of women in Prized are expected to marry and produce ten children each, while any women who opt out forfeit their children and lose all rights. In both novels, women essentially are trapped by their own bodies precisely because they are healthy and have the potential to bear children. It brings up complex issues around who really owns a person’s body.
Women are not the only ones whose reproduction is controlled in dystopias. In Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), all men and women report one night each spring to the City Palace of Mating where our hero Equality 7-2521 endures “an ugly and shameful matter.” Abstinence appears to cover the other 364 days of the year, which is completely believable considering everyone is brainwashed into collective ignorance. Rand doesn’t have to call people “zombies” to convey how dead they are, and when Equality begins to awaken, it makes sense that he’s awakened physically as well as intellectually.
Awakenings are overdue in the colorblind world of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), too, where the society tries to repress “stirrings” along with all other strong emotions by requiring everyone, including Jonas, to take a pill. When Jonas stops taking it, his choice is a rebellion, and a step towards individual freedom.
See a pattern yet? Kill desire and you kill the lifeblood of a person. Not just the individual’s ability to reproduce, but the inner fire that makes him or her whole. No wonder our protagonists have to rebel. No wonder we want them to succeed at any cost. We want our characters to feel alive and whole, just as we want to feel alive ourselves.
Another layer of injustice comes into play when characters are repressed by class. In Teri Hall’s The Line (2010), girls are given birth control implants at a young age, and only certain people are legally allowed to remove them. As Hall explains, “citizens are given permission based on their status and wealth.” That rich people are permitted to procreate while poor people are prohibited is not far-fetched, especially when we consider that North Carolina is currently arranging to pay token restitutions to 48 of the 6,000+ underprivileged women who were forcibly sterilized between the 1920’s and 1970’s as part of the state’s eugenics program.
In the zeitgeist, are we afraid our reproductive rights are under attack? The amorphous enemy is also a sinister one: society, our governments, ourselves. It’s hard to know where to start. Yet bleak as dystopias are, they also give us hope and a chance to practice the bravery we need. Lauren DeStefano offers this reflection: “New life is constantly pushing its way into the world, and that gives us hope that things will keep changing, that they can keep getting better. Whether or not this is true is a matter of debate, I suppose.”
I’m hoping she’s right that things can get better, because with fiction and reality converging, dystopian birth control seems ever more likely. It’s a good thing our characters still rebel.
Caragh M. O’Brien is a happy person whose writing keeps getting darker. Go figure. She is the author of Birthmarked and its sequel Prized, both from Roaring Brook Press.