When it comes to reproduction, sci-fi and speculative fiction mostly seem to think that anything other than the current way we do it is a bad idea. Think of any dystopian story, and it probably features lab-grown children, genetically modified humans, or widespread infertility. Otherwise, humanity is chugging along, there’s lots of other cool futuristic science, but most humans are still getting down the old fashioned way.
Why are there so few stories that show positive advances in reproductive science? Why can a story travel through space, but still make a woman die in childbirth? Maybe because, despite our scientific advancements, the state of human reproduction is still a mixed bag of wonder and horror.
Many sci-fi stories lean on the concept of women being farmed or enslaved for their reproductive tendencies. It gets at our deepest fears of losing bodily autonomy, as well as being a logical extreme of the sexual objectification and exploitation women experience. Mad Max: Fury Road set its exploitation of the female body in a world that utilizes all bodies as potential machines.
Battlestar Galactica had humans enslaved for reproductive experiments in a facility literally called the Farm. Perhaps the most famous and prescient woman’s nightmare is A Handmaid’s Tale, which hits the trifecta of declining fertility, state control of reproduction, and enslavement of women for forced birth.
Current abortion restrictions mean that women in many parts of the world are already living a slice of this nightmare. Complete bans on abortion not only threaten a woman’s autonomy, but also her life. Some of the most horrifying recent cases have come out of Ireland, where Savita Halappanavar died after being denied an abortion, and a suicidal teen was forced to carry her fetus and deliver via C-section. There was also egregious case of state intervention in Texas in 2014, when the state held a brain-dead woman on life support against the family’s wishes in an attempt to prioritize the potential life of the fetus.
Sci-fi and speculative fic have also, in some cases, become a tool for promoting an anti-abortion agenda, like the ridiculous Unwind series that shows a world in which legal abortion somehow led to it being okay to off your teenager if you want.
Surrogacy is growing business around the world. While it’s not state-mandated, it is typically regulated and legislated on by the state, and some opponents say it amounts to modern day slavery. Because of the high costs of surrogacy, the business relies primarily on poor women with few other economic options.
Cloning is a mixed bag in sci-fi. Protogenesis, or asexual reproduction, is often presented in a positive or neutral light when women have the ability. It was a staple in feminist sci-fi like Herland. While the aim is not always to remove men from society altogether, it does eliminate the potential for violence that is so often linked to sex and reproduction.
Issues of cloning in sci-fi are more often about [legality and personhood, such as in Orphan Black, rather than cloning as a mechanism of reproduction. However, cloning is a long time staple of sci-fi that has come fully to life in the past two decades. Cloning of animals occurs much more regularly than the public realizes. While complete human cloning is still off the table, legally, ethically, and scientifically, the advancements that have been made are astounding.
The good news is, it looks like cloned and lab-grown organs will become a reality way before full clones harvested for organs, à la Never Let Me Go.
In 2015, the UK approved “3-person IVF”: creating an fertilized egg that contains the DNA of three different individuals. The US is still significantly warier of the process; some worry it could lead to eugenics. However, the process only replaces the mitochondrial DNA of the ovum, which can carry genetic disease but does not affect any physical traits. The science is relatively new, but we’ve already seen it on Cleverman, used to produce a hybrid human fetus.
Many sci-fi stories feature our fear of hybridization with other species, or genetic engineering of human babies. While the current 3-person IVF procedure isn’t going to produce the GMO humans of movies like GATTACA, that is exactly the “slippery slope” that uninformed opponents of the procedure imagine. There is also resistance to any scenario that lies outside the male-female sex binary. Even when we tackle alien-human sex, there is usually still a male and female component, or equivalent.
Consider Lilith’s Brood, which confronts human hybridization with a race of three gendered aliens, in which offspring are conceived by human women as a result of a ‘foursome’. While it seems natural, and likely, to imagine that alien races reproduce quite differently than humans, the lack of a male-female binary further pushes the discomfort of the reader.
Ectogenesis, the term for developing an embryo outside of the body, is found most memorably in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His novel deals more heavily with issues of eugenics and genetic modification, but the notion of children created and raised en masse ties in to the way they are genetically guided and subsequently raised to have certain traits.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar, part of her Vorkosigan saga, features an artificial womb as a central part of her hero’s origin. In this case, Vorkosigan’s mother transfers him to this “uterine replicator” in order to treat a fetal abnormality that would otherwise be fatal.
It’s surprising that artificial wombs don’t appear more often in sci-fi. It would represent one of those rare positive developments, the anti-thesis to the loss of bodily autonomy that happens with force pregnancy and birth.
Recently, scientists successfully developed human embryos to 14-days, past the seven-day implantation point. The embryos were destroyed for ethical reasons, but it proves that embryos can continue to grow without implantation, and makes the concept of an artificial womb much more feasible than previously thought. You may have seen the video circulating of a chicken egg developed and hatched without a shell. While we won’t see human artificial wombs for a while, the science is at least much more possible than it was a few years ago.
Male pregnancy is a rarely-explored concept, one that would be more possible with inventions such as the artificial womb and 3-person IVF. Somehow, it’s more possible to imagine futuristic ways to subjugate women.
It’s telling to note that male pregnancy, on the rare occasion it occurs in a story, is either played for humor or extreme horror. Sci-fi misses the mark on this one. Growing communities of “m-preg” enthusiasts online show that it is a very real fantasy and desire for some men. There’s no reason the real future couldn’t make this a reality.