Dec 1 2011 6:00pm

Dystopian Birth Control

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.

Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
The dystopias sound more about pregnancy control than birth control. I tend to think of the ability to control whether or not I will be pregnant as a good thing- for instance, in Bujold's Barrayar series, a contraceptive implant is freeing to women as it avoids unwanted pregnancy. (and can do so without advertising the fact that it's there).

I'm not sure that limiting offspring on a per-person or per-family basis is necessarily a bad thing. (This is 'everyone gets one,' not 'some can't have any'). Would rich people be able to buy more children? Probably, whether in a legal process or through a black market. Perhaps those who don't want children could sell/give their chance to someone who does want more.
Caragh O'Brien
2. CMOBrien
Pam ~
Pregnancy control and birth control are closely related, though not precisely the same. I agree with you that a woman's ability to control if she's pregnant or not is a good thing. The trouble arises when that control belongs to someone else, and the dystopias routinely take that control away. Thanks for your input.
All best,
3. Lynnet1
This was very interesting. I've never thought about the paralells between how dystopias handle control of women's reproduction before. Thank you for writing about it.
Caragh O'Brien
4. CMOBrien
Lynnet1 ~
It was intriguing to choose the books to highlight and think about the patterns. I'm glad the piece interests you.
All best,
Peter Stone
5. Peter1742
There's also John Crowley's Engine Summer, set in a post-apocalyptic civilization where
(spoilers below)
at some point in the past women were changed genetically so they have to take medicine (as well as have sex) in order to get pregnant. Unfortunately, the supply of the medicine is slowly running out.
Of course, maybe that doesn't count as a true dystopia.
6. Zenspinner
There's Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House," too. I remember liking that story a lot when I read it years ago.
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
There is, however, quite a lot of birth control in futures we would call utopian. In Niven's future earth, for example, childbirth is severly limited to control the population numbers, and it seems like eugenics are employed - unless you win a birth lotterly, you have to have something that implies your genes are important enough to pass on, like having an exceptionally high IQ, to get a license. And if you have some genetic defect is seems like you're screwed. Of course, off Earth things are different.

There's also a one child per parent policy in Verley's Eight Worlds, although I'm not sure if it's regulation or custom.
8. wiredog
Anne McCaffrey's early Talent novels have an Earth where reproduction is severly restricted and "illegal" children are forcibly sterilized, along with their parents.
9. Jenny C.
Let's not forget that whole "life begins at conception" nonsense movement and those US states that are trying to make it a capital crime to have a miscarriage. It's explained with a preposterous degree of dogma about caring for the children, but it's not really about anything other than removing the rights of women. Dystopian "birth control" indeed.
Caragh O'Brien
10. CMOBrien
Zenspinner and Michael GR ~
Yes, see, this problem of controlling population intrigues me, like we can reach a point where the number of us alone mandates drastic, inhumane measures, plus prejudice. I wonder how sane that will seem to me when we truly face the limits of our resources. For now, eugenics choices based on I.Q. or blue eyes or gender imply we shouldn't value people with low I.Q.s or unblue eyes or the other gender, and this makes me bristle.
wiredog ~
Draconian indeed. Good for fiction.
Jenny ~
A lot of us can embrace the "nonsense" you mention and still support laws that protect people's choices about their reproduction. You'll notice that the good people of Mississippi did not vote for that recent amendment to their state constitution to define a fertilized egg as a person.
Thanks, all, for your comments.
All best,
Leonid Vydro
11. Lvydro
I can't believe we have an article about birth control in dystopian settings that doesn't mention perhaps the most archtypical example, Brave New World.
12. rdb
No mention of Tepper's "The Gate to Women's Country"?
Caragh O'Brien
13. CMOBrien
Lvydro ~
Oh, my gosh! Of course! Huxley's scenario is chilling. I'm intrigued by how children are "decanted" and mass produced, because contemplating the possibility feels so completely wrong. It fits in with how we fear losing our individuality.
rdb ~
I'm afraid I've missed that one. I'll add it to my reading pile. Thanks.
All best,
Beth Friedman
14. carbonel
Another example is Ira Levin's This Perfect Day. Citizens are required to have monthly "treatments" that they know contain contraceptives. What isn't made public is that the treatments also deaden the sex drive sufficiently that "only on Saturday night" is the standard, except for sex-crazed teens.
15. Maggie Dana
Carbonel: Good to hear someone mention "This Perfect Day." I think of it often and shudder, even though I read it many decades ago. Ira Levin's brilliant books have a way of worming their way inside you and staying there.
Caragh O'Brien
16. CMOBrien
Carbonel and Maggie ~
I'm adding This Perfect Day to my pile, too. It's interesting that writers have been fiddling with the same issue for generations. I wonder how far back we could find it.
Thanks for your input.
All best,
17. James Davis Nicoll
The Earth in Known Space puttered along with 18 billion or so people for centuries, as I recall, and it would not take centuries to reduce the population if the annual growth rate was even a little negative. ARM and the UN seem to be set on maintaining population at that level.

Real life provides a depressingly large and varied set of examples of people attempting to regulate other people's fertility, from Canada's provincial eugenics laws (repealed in the 1970s) to Romania's pro-natalist Decree 770. It's interesting that both pro- and anti-natalist policies can if properly implimented create a considerable amount of unnecessary misery.

A recent example of an SF author advocating the regulation of other people's fertility comes from Ben Bova's 2009 The Return, a cross-over between his Grand Tour setting and his Voyager's books (incompatable histories but Stoner and his kin manage to get from one timeline to another, perhaps using the same route Hellbent 4 used). Stoner and his wife and kids are alarmed to find an Earth overfilled with people despite recent climate crises, where the religious leaders are all pro-natalist and every woman apparently wants to have kids,

I'd like to assure the readers at this point that there is no danger if you read this book that you will be exposed to such things as the work of Warren Thompson or concepts such as the demographic transition and that the decline in birth rates seen in such diverse nations as Italy, Japan and Iran do not in any way figure into the future this book depicts

and since the Earthicans don't seem likely to regulate their birthrates in accordance with the desires of the Stoner family, the Stoner family ultimately decide to use the stupendous alien technology they have to do it for the Earthicans. Earthican females are altered, in secret, so they can only have a maximum of two children. Since some will not have any children at all, this means the human population can only decline.

Now, the Stoners could opt to reverse this on Earth but by the end of the book, starships are headed to the nearer stars and the people on those ships have no idea, as far as I can tell, that their populations can at best remain static in number and are more likely to decline into extinction.
Caragh O'Brien
18. CMOBrien
James ~
"It's interesting that both pro- and anti-natalist policies can if properly implimented create a considerable amount of unnecessary misery." I agree with you there, and I remember the photos of Romanian babies lined up on carts like loaves of bread.
The Thompson model of what happens with births and deaths in developed countries makes sense, and as we tend to see progress as a good thing, we might be lured into believing we're superior if we live in a developed country with a stable population. I believe true progress will be shown by how compassionate we become as a species, and I hope as we become more inter-knit around the globe, we'll find better ways to share resources and value each other.
We're not likely to see Bova's convenient starship escape hatches anytime soon, and I'm fine with that. Let's see what we can do here and now.
Thanks for your insights.
All best,
19. James Davis Nicoll
The Thompson model of what happens with births and deaths in developed countries makes sense, and as we tend to see progress as a good thing, we might be lured into believing we're superior if we live in a developed country with a stable population.

A stable population may be a bit tricky; populations can shrink as well as grow and it's not necessarily clear a society in Stage Five (low death rate, even lower birth rate, declining population) can easily get out of it. In a world like ours, this isn't necessarily a problem in the short run if like Canada one accepts immigrants to make up for the shortfall in locally produced humans (Japan, not being terribly keen on immigrants, appears to be opting for gradual national extinction). In a hypothetical world where everywhere is in stage four or stage five, governments may get quite grumpy about citizens opting to move other other nations, taking their productive capacity with them.
20. Never
Any attempts in fiction or real life to control the fertility of other people--whether a limited subgroup or an entire population--is chilling to most readers, especially women. Though I enjoyed being pregnant with my daughter, and would happily choose to give birth to another child in the future with the right partner, I've often had nightmares of the axlotl tanks in the Dune series. It isn't until late in the series that we discover the Tleilaxu use the term "tank" as a misnomer, as they instead use their females as immobile birthing units to create the various people they wish, including their gholas and skin dancers.

Besides Dune and "The Handmaid's Tale," I actually found "Herland" to be somewhat unnerving, despite its supposed Utopian designation. A group of male explorers stumble across an isolated society populated entirely by women. The women, thanks to a genetic mutation in the youngest member of the original party to have become stranded there, can spontaneously fertilize themselves up to five times in their lives. However, to avoid overcrowding, the women have to be approved to have children by a council of elders. They choose to ignore the "call" to pregnancy by distracting themselves in other matters. When a woman does have a child, often she does not get to keep and raise the child, but rather, the girl is taken from her to be given to an older woman considered more suitable. Though it's never directly expressed, there are those among the population who seem saddened to be unable to raise their own daughters.

I think it comes down to freedom to choose what happens to one's body, and to the offspring of any pregnancy, which does occur. Dystopian, and even supposedly utopian, novels may deal with the subject in their own ways, but the essence of what makes it horrifying is to the degree of control exerted by outside forces on an individual's own biology. Having a close friend who was sterilized in a U.S. eugenics campaign, I know how horrifying these fictions can be when made real.
21. James Davis Nicoll
Any attempts in fiction or real life to control the fertility of other people--whether a limited subgroup or an entire population--is chilling to most readers, especially women.

I suspect it would be depressingly easy to find persons for whom this was not true at all.
22. James Davis Nicoll
Here's a bit from Brian Stableford's 1998 Inherit the Earth:

(Background: everyone was sterilized by designer diseases and everyone born since then has been born in artificial wombs. By "everyone", that seems to mean "people rich enough to afford it."

On an unrelated note, aside from one character named Hiru Yamanaka and one named Surinder Nahal it's pretty much wall-to-walls Harts and Heliers and Rolfes and they all seem to be Anglophones. Mostly the book is about who created the sterility plagues and why)

Happily, we get an explanation:

If the population had continued to increase, so that nanotech emortality spread through a world that was still vomiting out babies from billions of wombs, nothing could have restrained the negative Malthusian checks. The so-called plague wars had already proved themselves inadequate to cut population dramatically in a world of advanced medical care, but there were plenty more and even nastier weapons to hand. The world was set to go bad in a big way; all that remained for sane men to do was to exercise the least bad option and that's what Conrad Hellier set out to do.

It's not happy timing that artificial wombs show up right after humans become sterile. The same man and his team arranged for both.

Why work in secrecy and why keep it secret for decades?

"Because PicoCon and the other purveyors of cheap longevity have ensured that the world is still overfull of people whose moral horizons are absurdly narrow and horribly bleak. For every person alive in 2095 who would have understood our reasons, there were half a hundred who would have said "how dare you do this to me? How dare you take away my freedom of self-determination, even for the good of the world?' Too many people would have seen sterilization as theft, as a loss of power.

More justification:

"What gave us the right was our understanding. Conrad had the vision, and the artistry needed to develop the means. The responsibility fell to him -- you might as well ask what right he had to surrender it to others, given that those others were mostly ill-educated ego-maniacs whose principle short-term goal was to slaughter their neighbors. Someone had to be prepared to take control or the world was doomed."

"The empire of nature ended with the development of language. Ever sicne then, humans have been the product of their technology. All talk of human nature is romantic clap-trap. The history of human progress has been the history of human transcendence and suppression of the last vestiges of instinctive behavior. If there was any maternal instinct left in 2070, its annihilation was a thoroughly good thing. To blame any present unhappiness or violence on the loss or frustration of any kind of genetic heritage is both stupid and ridiculous."

We get another round of justification by other characters later on:

"The Crash put a belated end to unpoliced population growth but Helier's artificial wombs made certain that the bad old days would never come back again. If Helier hadn't got the new apparatus up and running in time to become the new status quo, some clown would have engineered a set of transformer viruses to refertilize every woman under the age of sixty-five and we'd have been back to square one. You probably think the Second Plague War was a nasty affair but that's because you read about it in the kind of history books that only tell you what happened and skip over all the might-have-beens. If it hadn't been for Conrad Helier, you'd probably have had to live through the third round of the Not-Quite-Emortal Rich Versus the Ever-Desperate Poor ."

Madoc had to think about this for a minute or two but he soon saw the logic of the case. New technologies of longevity were an unqualified boon in an era in which population had ceased to grow, even though access to them was determined by wealth. In a world where poorer people were still producing children in vast numbers, those same technologies would inevitably have become bones of fierce contention, catalysts of all-out war.

Which sounds a lot better if you try not to think about how the least-bad option seems to have exterminated everyone who was poor and pretty much everyone who isn't white.
23. James Davis Nicoll
And for more recent material, there's this bit from an interview with Sheri Tepper in Strange Horizons on 21 July 2008.

Huh, actually, when I try to quote that I end up wanting to quote too much for fear of appearing to be taking stuff out of context. It's here:

She also did a Big Ideas thing on Scalzi's blog: here's a bit of it:

OH-kay. Can’t talk about that. Several religions say we can’t have too many people. Male egos (some female, too) says can’t have too many. “Lookee me, how prolific I am, world’s biggest mommy, eight at a whack, just like a mommy jack rabbit.” Instinct says can’t have too many. This was a very good instinct back when every cave held a saber-toothed tiger or a cave bear or something more deadly. Back when infections had no medications, wounds had no sutures, breaks had no casts. Back when three or four out of five humans died before they grew up. Back when creatures ate people more than the other way around. Not such a good idea now.

If there's any awareness there that the birthrates of the world are plummeting (1) I cannot see it.

1: Which I am completely fine with as long as it's the result of millions of independent, uncoorced decisions.

Uh, this happens to be one of my particular interests in SF.
Caragh O'Brien
24. CMOBrien
James ~
@19 Those grumpy governments need only expand tax breaks for parents of multiple children or otherwise compensate parents for time needed to bear and raise children, and the negative birth rate problem will be solved, no?
I suspect we’re having a shortage of births right now in the U.S. as individual families are tightening their belts. Watch for this shadow generation to move forward through our schools over the next decades, with accompanying shrinking of all child-related services. The price of toys should increase, however, as more grandparents focus their generosity on fewer grandchildren.
Never ~
I’m sorry to hear of your friend’s involuntary sterilization experience. Such a violation would be incredibly hard to bear.
Gilman’s Herland (1915) is now winning in our comments for the earliest novel dealing with this issue, and we’re well before the 19th Amendment now. It’s hard to know how sad those mothers who forfeit their daughters must be. We accept a lot of what our society trains us to believe is our duty.
Dystopian, and even supposedly utopian, novels may deal with the subject in their own ways, but the essence of what makes it horrifying is to the degree of control exerted by outside forces on an individual's own biology.” Yes, exactly. Thank you.
James ~
@21 Yikes!
@22 “"What gave us the right was our understanding.”
The character has a little arrogance there maybe.
@23 Yes, it comes back to those “independent, uncoerced decisions.”
I don’t want to dismiss the concern for the growing population, however. It ties so closely to resources, which in turn tie to money, and if those who have money also have the arrogant power you mention above, we’ll be facing curtailment of reproductive rights anywhere that power can reach.
What we need to do is raise conscientious, respectful humans, and in this light, I decree mandatory sci-fi reading for all! (I’m kidding.)
All best,
25. James Davis Nicoll
@19 Those grumpy governments need only expand tax breaks for parents of multiple children or otherwise compensate parents for time needed to bear and raise children, and the negative birth rate problem will be solved, no?

Happily, there are some experiments being run along these lines right now (I see that e.g. Estonia's crude birth rate was 8.5/1000 in 2000 and 10.5 now).

I suspect we’re having a shortage of births right now in the U.S. as individual families are tightening their belts.

Not really; the US crude birth rate was a bit over 14/1000 before the 2008 financial collapse and it's about 13.8/1000 now. For comparison, Canada's crude birth rate is about 10.3/1000.

I don’t want to dismiss the concern for the growing population, however.

We seem to have hit Peak Child for the planet as a whole in 2005; assuming no surprises, the population will keep growing at least for a few more decades before the world as a whole experiences what places like Japan are going through now but that population will be aging and the increase in population per unit time will not be as dramatic as the one we saw in the 20th century. Ten billion by 2100 would not be out of the question.

A lot of that growth will be in Africa so engineering some sort of Green Revolution there would be a really good idea.

On the plus side, a human only needs chemical fuel to produce a hundred watts so in theory any given square meter could support a person or two (more near the equator, less towards the poles). Happily the methods we use to produce human fuel is extremely inefficient, which means we still have lots of room for improvement, assuming the biochemistry we're apparently limited to using allows it (Most crops run at 1 to 2 percent but since some plants like sugar cane can hit 8%, we know 2% is not the upper limit).

If I recall correctly, at present we can feed about 12 billion people so any famines we see will probably be due to political and economic factors and not simple short-falls in productivity.

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