Content Note: Sexual Assault, abuse, traumatic miscarriage, psych ward treatment, and suicide.
It is 2091, and Grace is staring at the rabbit in the corner of her visual overlay. It is an Angora rabbit, fluffy and white, and when Grace picked the icon out, she did not realize how much she would come to dread the sight of it. She moves, and the overlay moves with her. A reminder. A threat.
There are three other authorized users with access to her rabbit test: her mother, her father, and the family doctor who installed it at their request shortly after her first menses.
In two months, Grace will turn 18 and at that point she can maintain or disable the app as she sees fit. But she doesn’t have two months. Her period is six days late, and tomorrow her tracker will automatically administer a pregnancy test.
Grace pulls up the profile of her best friend, Sal, and sends their usual emergency alert: Coffee??
It is 1931, and Maurice Friedman and Maxwell Edward Lapham have just published “A Simple, Rapid Procedure for the Laboratory Diagnosis of Early Pregnancies” in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, volume 21. This simple (very), rapid (by some standards) procedure involves one urine sample and one very unlucky rabbit.
(It is 1927, and Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek have just introduced the test first, actually, and theirs involves five-packs of mice. But the doctors, both Jewish, will soon flee Nazi Germany, and except for the occasional lab that prefers breeding mice over rabbits, it is the Friedman test that will catch on instead.)
Step One: Inject the urine sample into the veins of a live, juvenile female rabbit. Wait several days.
Step Two: Dissect the unlucky bunny. Inspect its ovaries. If they have enlarged and turned yellow, then congratulations or our condolences, this follicular maturation indicates a noticeable presence of hCG. You’re pregnant.
Contrary to the parlance of the time, it is not the death of the rabbit that indicates a positive test. The rabbit always dies.
It is 2091, and the fine folks at Rabbit Test LMC do not have a laboratory farm. There are no animal casualties in the work they do. A very small minority of their users even understand the reference that inspired the company’s name—it is a bit of trivia. Ancient history. An office joke.
Grace doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, and certainly isn’t laughing. She waits for Sal at the coffee shop, and every sip of spark makes her stomach roil with nerves.
When Sal gets there—lovely Sal with her long brown hair and her nails painted like dragon scales—Grace can barely wait till they’re in the parking lot to blurt it out.
“How?” Sal cries. “Didn’t you map it, like I said?”
She had, she had, that was the thing. Grace had watched her cycle tracker like a surveillance drone over a labor march, and even though her parents disabled the setting that indicated her most fertile days (“Don’t get any ideas,” they’d said), she’d done the math on paper to map out her most unfertile days. At least, that’s what she thought.
Now Sal is chewing anxiously on one of her nails (she’ll ruin them that way, always does). “Did you tell Mac? Do you think he’ll stick around? Will your parents—”
“I need a blackout,” Grace interrupts. “Please, Sal. I know you’ve got some.”
It’s a glitch they’ve used before. An errant bit of update code that will block their apps for a day or two. Sal uses them to disable her blood alcohol test whenever her parents are out of town. They download patches every time, but she’s a whiz at writing new ones, and that’s all that Grace needs, just a day or two to corrupt the rabbit test. Under cover of the blackout, she can pull up the profile of one of those old ladies who sells pill packs out of their closets, hoarded up from before the ban.
She tries not to think about Mac, or that night spent fumbling in a sleeping bag in his dad’s backyard. He’s leaving for a deep-sea fishing gig in two weeks. He isn’t even waiting for graduation, it’s the old birthday-and-bounce, and everyone knows how few of those boys come back.
Sal is looking panicked—this is leagues beyond getting shitfaced on a Saturday night—but they’re best friends, weekend witches, twins from different sins.
She whispers, “I’ll do it.”
It is 1940, and bioassays are already shifting away from mice and rabbits and on to frogs: Xenopus laevis, to be exact. It’s a brilliant substitution, inspired by the research of Lancelot Hogben in the 1930s.
(The zoologist: British. His place of study: South Africa. Until he became disillusioned by the racism of the region, at which point he left the country behind and took a colony of frogs with him.)
Here is the genius of the development: within twelve hours of injecting the young frog with hormone-laden urine: poof, she lays eggs. Miles quicker than rabbit death row, and check this out: you can use the frog again!
There are obstacles in place (a doctor must decide that early diagnosis is warranted), but even so, tens of thousands of frogs will be exported from southern Africa each year to fill demand.
It is 1839, and there are no mice or rabbits or frogs in sight, but Catherine knows she is pregnant (she is all-too familiar with the signs), and she knows she cannot manage a fifth child on seamstress work.
She finds an ad in the New York Sun:
TO MARRIED WOMEN.—Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate?…Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.
The advertiser in question calls herself Madame Restell, and she takes clients at her Greenwich Street office between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Catherine’s grandmother swore by pennyroyal or tansy tea, but she also had more than one friend felled by a toxic dose. These are modern times, and Catherine would prefer something measured with more exactitude. In addition to the simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy Madame Restell offers for people in situations such as Catherine’s, she also sells Preventative Powder (five dollars per package) and Female Monthly Pills (one dollar apiece). Catherine isn’t sure she can fit that into the family budget, but it would surely be a blessing if she could.
(It is 1839, and for enslaved women laboring against their will below the Mason-Dixon line there are no advertisements in the paper, there are no accessible offices on public streets, there is no quiet recovery in the privacy of their own homes, for they own nothing but their wits. For these women, forced to birth more children into the system that enslaves them, there is cotton root bark if they have the supply and the knowledge to use it, a remedy shared in whispers, a remedy that will bring down the foulest of punishments upon their heads if they are caught—but still they try.)
Catherine has no cause to know any of that, and if she did it would make her uneasy at best. She is not the sort of woman who attends abolitionist meetings or subscribes to their publications. She is a woman who scarcely has a moment free to tend her own problems, hence her need to tend this problem. Immediately.
She is lucky that someone has the means, the interest, and the entrepreneurial spirit to help her out.
It is 2091, and Grace is praying that someone might have the means, the interest, and the entrepreneurial spirit to help her out.
Within hours of installing Sal’s blackout code, Grace feels her rabbit test commence. It’s the barest prickle in her arm, the telltale tick of her med chip taking a blood sample. The scan goes straight to her tracker, and the animation of a laughing baby about stops her heart. But Sal’s code holds true—her data is stored locally, and Grace deletes it with a desperate swipe before it can transmit to anyone else.
Grace sobs into her pillow for a good long while, convinced her plan has failed before it’s even begun, because she can’t do this, she can’t do this, how did she think she could do this? She’ll die and go straight to hell.
But her tears subside and she spends the rest of the afternoon scouring protest sites, seeking the ever-changing link to a link to a link that will land her on a temporary profile with the latest bot-evading slang for terminating pregnancy. She uses her bedroom ceiling for the projection, rapidly filling it with open pages, skimming one after another, trying to parse the euphemisms.
(It is 1840, and assorted Victorians are scanning the newspaper for female regulators, cathartic pills, anything that might solve private difficulties by removing obstructions. In 2091 there are no paper ads, but private difficulties remain.)
There. On a university black market page, buried among requests for machine-generated history papers and cafeteria access chips, Grace finds what she is looking for: cheat sheets for rabbit tests.
At least, she thinks this is what she’s looking for. It could mean another blackout—or maybe it’s just for birth control? Grace is vague on how the latter works.
The post is signed with the initials A.M.E. Grace rewrites her message a thousand times before settling on a hesitant, What if I’ve already taken the test?
Thirty excruciating minutes later, a reply pops up. Give me your audio line.
It makes sense not to have this conversation by text, blackout or no, but Grace’s entire body begins to shake as soon as she sends her number. There is no way that she can talk to a stranger about this, there is no way she can make her confession to a possible-troll at best and a possible-cop at worst. When the call comes through her voice cracks on hello.
“You sound a mess,” A.M.E. says, not without sympathy. “Tell me what you’re looking for, babe.”
It all spills out.
Over the next twenty minutes, Grace has one preconception challenged after another. For one thing, she had assumed all of the hoarders were old ladies, but A.M.E.—“Call me Ambrose”—laughs and assures her that he isn’t that old, and he isn’t a lady. Women aren’t the only people worried about their uteruses, and Ambrose saw the writing on the wall long before the 2084 ban passed.
“I had the ol’ womb exhume in the ’70s,” he says, “but I ordered as many pill packs as I could from overseas before the mail cracked down.” He warns her that the pills have been expired for a year, but the worst-case scenario is they don’t work, and she’s already facing that.
He’s charging four hundred dollars—he wants to help but hey, times are tough—and that’s doable, barely, Grace can scrape that together between leftover birthday money and selling old toys on her market page. If anyone asks what the money was for, she’ll say she took Sal out for dinner and a show.
And then he starts asking her questions that nobody has ever asked her before. What does she know about birth control? (“No, babe, taking it won’t make you sterile for life. If only.”) What are her plans after this? Not today, not next week, her real plans. Her life.
As Grace talks, she feels the decision taking hold. That’s the gift Ambrose is giving her with this conversation, when he could have simply stated a price and a pickup location and left it at that. He isn’t pressing her. He’s giving her a moment to think it through, to own what she is about to do. It’s her body.
“So,” Ambrose says. “What’s it gonna be?”
She’s choked silent for a moment by a mudslide rush of fear and guilt. Grace can barely think the word in her own head (abortion) because it is so fraught, made dirty by her parents’ strident warnings.
Her mother was there in 2084, you know, marching for stricter regulation of uterine care. People were killing their babies left and right before that, she said. It was easy. Untraceable. Rabbit tests were private, no requirement to inform a medical office; pills were on auto-order, so you’d scarcely notice the late date before a drone dropped a discreet package down the bathroom chute. And that was only the people who weren’t hacking their natural biology, popping in gestational blocks like getting their ears pierced, as though the country wasn’t in a population freefall, as though they weren’t in dire need of sturdy white babies to survive the coming storms—(her mother’s diatribes took many turns).
Grace still remembers hiding behind her mother’s legs at that march, age nine and terrified of the crowd. She remembers the moment that her mother pulled her into the spotlight, and cried, “My miracle child! This is my miracle child!” And she told the entire story over amplification: how her prenatal pills had been swapped for baby killers (how could such a switch happen on accident? Grace would not question this until she was much older) and the doctor told her the chances of her child surviving were slim, even with immediate intervention, but she had prayed and prayed and prayed, and she’d saved Grace’s life.
So yes, there is guilt. Mountains of it. Vast oceans, roiling with the rising temperature. Guilt the size of a rich man’s space station.
But Grace is also exhilarated. She’ll finish school. She’ll be more careful. What are her plans after this? She doesn’t know yet, but she desperately wants the time to figure them out.
“Tell me where to go,” she says, and she means it.
It is 1978, and Alice is looking at an advertisement for the first FDA-approved home pregnancy test, now on shelves at pharmacies all over the country. It takes nine steps, two hours, an angled mirror, and a vial of sheep’s blood, but for ten dollars you can investigate your own body in the privacy of your own home, and if the test comes up negative you can be eighty percent sure that it’s correct.
It isn’t merely the test that has taken Alice’s breath away, but the coverage in Mademoiselle. For decades it has billed itself as the quality magazine for smart young women—those fashionable, sophisticated, career-minded girls of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s—and alongside the fashion editorials and the beauty tips it has boasted writers and editors such as Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson and James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath.
But this is different.
The e.p.t In-Home Early Pregnancy Test is a private little revolution any woman can easily buy at her drugstore…Now its high accuracy rate has been verified here in America by doctors…That means you can confidently do this easy pregnancy test yourself—privately—right at home without waiting for appointments or delays…At last early knowledge of pregnancy belongs easily and accurately to us all.
The ad is remarkable enough, but it is the commentary on page 86 that has Alice close to tears. It is beautiful in its candor, its practicality—its honesty, baldly stating that the benefits of private and rapid results are that they give you a chance, if pregnant, “to start taking care of yourself…or to consider the possibility of early abortion.”
To see those words printed openly in a national magazine?
She scarcely thought she’d see the day, because—
Because it is 1971, and Alice can’t imagine how close she is to a future in which abortion is suggested with matter-of-fact sophistication in Mademoiselle and the rest of Condé Nast’s women’s magazine lineup.
Alice is a married woman with two children in school, and every afternoon she calls a list of complete strangers who have left messages for Jane. They are in dire need of help.
Jane does not exist.
Or rather, Jane is several women, and they provide a very specific service to the greater Chicago area. They call themselves the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, but for the purposes of discretion, women in need can call the phone number on their flyer and leave a message for Jane, and Jane will get back to them soon.
(They are not the first group to think of this. There are Clergy Consultation Services in several states already—networks of pastors and ministers and rabbis lobbying for legalized abortion and referring women to legal clinics if they can afford to travel, and to discreet local contacts if they cannot.)
Once a week the whole crew meets up to assign phone numbers to the counselors for a callback. Alice is one of only a few Black members in the group. The rest are white. White housewives, white working women, white activists looking to do something tangible, something now. And they’re helping thousands of people, there’s no doubt about that, but the fact remains that as their service spreads through the South and West Side neighborhoods of Chicago, their clientele increasingly doesn’t match their membership. Alice’s goal is to provide these folks a reassuring and familiar face.
She joined as a counselor, driver, and sometimes-assistant after accompanying a friend to an appointment. Call this number, her friend’s doctor had said. They only charge what you can afford. And sure as shit, Alice helped scrape fifty dollars together and fifty dollars is what it cost. She looked around that living-room-turned-waiting-room, full of frightened teenagers and weary moms-of-three, and she knew she wanted to help.
Abortion hadn’t always been the purview of psych wards and hospital review boards; it hadn’t always been a begrudging concession on one’s deathbed or a desperate gamble in a germ-ridden hotel room.
It used to be the work of midwives and healers, friends and neighbors, those with wombs learning the workings of their own bodies.
Which is why the members of Jane are learning to perform the procedure themselves.
It is 2091, and Grace has no idea how a womb works, but somebody does, and she’s heading his way.
Even with the blackout, she is too paranoid to hire a driver—everything leaves a trail, everything—and so she takes her little brother’s electric scooter from the garage. Ambrose asked that she convert her money into gift cards rather than transfer it directly to him, and she’s shaken by how many potential pitfalls she hadn’t even considered.
Grace’s destination—a parking lot with many exits, behind a hydroponic garden that used to be a mall—is fifteen miles from her home.
She leaves before dawn. Every streetlight is a searchlight, every passing face a spy. She’s on that stage with her mother again, the bullhorn blaring MIRACLE CHILD! MY MIRACLE CHILD! And she’s in her high school health class being told to abstain, make good decisions, have the integrity to wait, do not lift the veil of her body to an unworthy partner, and certainly do not lift it before being wed. She’s failed her parents and her God and her teachers and her boyfriend and herself, but none of them need to know. She’s going to hell, but not today.
Grace doesn’t make it five miles before there’s a horn blaring and her father shouting out the window and her mother sobbing in the passenger seat. Her father’s wristband is flashing at the proximity—the scooter has an old geolocator tag that Grace had completely forgotten about.
Later she’ll learn the details (Sal panicked and told her mother), but at the moment all she knows is that her parents are here, they’ve caught her, the door has slammed shut.
It is 2083, and Grace’s mother is a single spear in a vanguard. Half the world is burning or flooding and the other half is arguing bitterly over who should take in refugees, if at all. (They’d postponed this future, a hard push in the ’30s and ’40s, a desperate revival of green initiatives, wholly reactive and far too late—but it was only a stall, in the end.)
Amelia is marching because she fears being outnumbered. She’s marching because she believes it’s her duty to save babies and place them in homes with good Christian values, because the scientific establishment is out of control, a cabal of demons on Earth locking an entire generation out of salvation.
She doesn’t know or understand all of the terminology, but she’s equally scathing toward every problem facing America today. Invasions at the border and children making up genders and godlessness in schools and lesbians in every sitcom and the greatest problem of all looming over the rest: the intrusion of technology into natural-born bodies. An entire economy of soulless elites enabling—encouraging!—people to tailor their hormones and alter their organs, to implant med chips and tracking devices, monsters who are giving their tech cute names like rabbit test when it isn’t cute at all, it’s a means to leap at the first sign of conception and take control of a natural process that ought to be left to God’s will alone. (The hypocrisy of installing that same test in Grace will never occur to her; the right people have taken over monitoring it.)
The long and short of it is: her daughter will be raised better.
It is 2092, and Grace is a disappointment to her mother.
“Breathe,” says the nurse.
Grace is breathing. She’s also crying. She read what she could find about childbirth but nothing prepared her for the reality. At one point she is struck by the desperate, irrational desire to call Ambrose—at least he would tell her honestly what’s about to happen. But that temporary profile is long gone; his number long disconnected.
“Breathe,” says the nurse.
Grace is gasping. Her mother is at her side, but they are hardly speaking at this point. There are drugs, but she is in terrible pain. When the anesthesiologist ups the dose and half of Grace’s body immobilizes, she has a panic attack.
The anesthesiologist’s voice penetrates the haze. “…something for the anxiety?”
Grace’s mother says yes. The drugs trickle in, and Grace can’t remember most of what happens next.
It is 2092 and there is only so much comfort modern medicine can provide. Even if Grace’s mother had hired a doula (“You don’t need one,” she had declared. “You have me.”)—even if she had, what could a doula have said to make Grace feel any better? The deed is done.
A nurse holds up the infant, which is squalling in even more terror than its mother.
Barring any gender revelations to come: it’s a girl.
It is 1817, and Asenath Smith is in love with an Episcopal preacher.
His name is Ammi Rogers, and he’s been banned from the ministry in Connecticut for promoting separation of church and state. He works instead on the lucrative traveling preacher circuit, where he’s grown exceedingly popular—particularly amongst the ladies.
Asenath, twenty-one years of age and grown up in a family of independent-minded women, met the controversial figure when he was giving comfort at the bedside of her dying grandmother, God rest her soul. She was smitten. She was smote.
When Asenath realizes she is pregnant, she goes straight to Rogers, secure in the fact of their upcoming marriage. They’ll only have to hasten the date.
But Rogers won’t marry her unless she ends the pregnancy. Most people ignore it when babies are born less than nine months from the wedding, but that courtesy will not be extended to him. His reputation is already under attack.
He gives her medication, but it doesn’t take.
He attempts to use a tool, but that doesn’t seem to work either, so he flees town. Several terrible, pain-ridden days later, Asenath gives birth: a stillborn.
The ensuing scandal is intense—the attempts at prosecution even more so. There is no seduction law in Connecticut, no statute banning abortion. He is arrested nonetheless.
The first trial fails when Rogers abducts Asenath and her sister, locking them up until they agree to withdraw their testimony. They keep their promise and refuse to cooperate at the second trial, but their former statements are presented anyway. In lieu of any charge more accurate, Rogers is convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to two years in prison.
The firestorm rages on. The coercion of Asenath Smith is central to the debate, but the debate does not include ways to ensure that women like Asenath can escape coercion. The General Assembly instead takes aim at medicinal abortion, eager to push midwives and grandmothers (many of them immigrants or formerly enslaved) out of the business—the first antiabortion legislation in the nation. Abortions approved and performed by doctors will remain protected for some time longer, putting these delicate bodily decisions into more authoritative hands.
This conclusion misses the point.
It is 2107, and Grace’s daughter is fifteen years old. They’ve been living on their own for five of those years, finally out of Grace’s childhood home and into a one-bedroom apartment in a downtrodden part of town. Most of Grace’s neighbors are from India, and it’s a relief to escape the constant scrutiny of her former neighbors, a relief to no longer be ducking her head in shame.
It isn’t Olivia that Grace is ashamed of, even though that is what everyone expected of her. (She loves her daughter, despite it all.) Rather, she’s ashamed of how long it took her to get out of that house. A decade of minimum wage shift work and listening to her mother’s remonstrations about her character and the burdens of babysitting and social embarrassment, as if she hadn’t kept Grace under strict supervision for eight months to ensure it would happen—
But it’s over. These past five years have been peaceful. They’ve been revelatory. Her own life is under her own control (to the extent that working fifty-plus hours per week to afford pasta and imitation butter feels like control). Grace has cut ties to her church and only answers her mother’s calls one third of the time. Life isn’t what she hoped for, but she’s learned to live with her life.
And then May comes.
In May, Olivia goes to a party after school and comes home sick. She can’t remember a thing, but she’s aching, she’s distressed, she has nightmares that move like shadows in candlelight. They run a blood workup but whatever was in her system is gone without a trace.
Three weeks later she falls onto Grace’s shoulder, panic-stricken, in disbelief, and in that second before the words tumble out of her mouth, Grace already knows. It’s her rabbit test.
(It wasn’t installed at Grace’s request, or with either of their consent. Med chips are mandatory from age 6, the rabbit test from age 10. It’s been a statewide law since 2102, and Grace can’t afford to leave the state. The protesters who were so quick to condemn its use in private decision-making had no qualms about using it for surveillance.)
“What do I do?” Olivia cries. Over and over. “What do I do?”
Grace’s mouth is dry. The words come out faintly. “I can fix this,” she says. “If that’s what you want.”
“How?” Olivia whispers.
They stay up late that night, discussing the options. Grace tries not to reveal how badly she is shaking. She talks Olivia through the risks of trying to fake a miscarriage versus the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. She tries to give her the information she wishes she’d had, building the conversation without a blueprint.
“Have you run a search?” Grace asks abruptly.
“No, I came straight to you.” Olivia reaches out hesitantly, as if to pull up a screen. “Should I…?”
“No!” Grace claps a hand over hers. “Don’t search. Don’t breathe a word to anyone, not even your best friend, do you understand?”
At the moment, the law only condemns the procurer. Olivia is a minor. Her body belongs to Grace in the eyes of the law, and therefore Grace is responsible for what comes next.
She does everything she can to cover her tracks. An anonymous account from a throwaway device, an exchange location in a terrifying part of town where the network is always down, an even more terrifying night spent rubbing her daughter’s back, coaching her through the cramps and nausea, making note of the size of her blood clots and rehearsing the story they’ll tell the doctor the next morning—
It isn’t enough.
All it takes is one suspicious nurse to flag Olivia’s paperwork. Why didn’t they make an appointment when her rabbit test came up positive? Why didn’t they go to the E.R. at the first sight of blood?
Grace’s background is scrutinized, her location data inspected for mysterious gaps, witnesses contacted in regards to her character. And then, evidence where she didn’t even know to destroy it: a drug test performed on their household wastewater line.
She is arrested for murder, but the public defender tells her they can get it knocked down to voluntary manslaughter if she attests that she was out of her mind, in a heat of passion triggered by the memory of her own thwarted abortion and the lack of a man’s support. Grace doesn’t want to be cast as a madwoman who shoved pills down her daughter’s throat in a fit of old-fashioned hysteria, but it takes the sentence down from twenty years without parole to twelve.
She’ll go away, and Olivia will be remanded into the custody of Grace’s own mother.
And all Grace can think of as she’s led out of the courtroom is: I had five years of my own. I had five years.
It is 1993, and she wants this baby so much, they have been trying and trying; there’s a heartbeat, she can hear it, but there isn’t a brain. Her body won’t let it go, and the doctor says I am very sorry, but I will have to remove it myself.
It is 2015, and she has to sneak in on a Tuesday because her youth group is protesting the clinic on Saturday, and she needs a couple of days to recover or they’ll wonder why she isn’t there. She’ll weep in the recovery room and call the nurse a murderer.
It is 1965, and she has to convince a hospital review board that she’s suicidal, clutching letters from two separate psychiatrists, all for the privilege of spending two nights in a psych ward and having all her bits shaved for no clear reason, but it works, it’s humiliating but it works, and she knows she’s one of the lucky ones for finding a way.
It is 1150, and Hildegard von Bingen, the Sybil of the Rhine, is settling into life as the abbess of a monastery built in her honor. She is preparing to write the medical tomes Physica and Causae et Curae, in which, among many other remedies, she will list her most tried-and-true abortifacients. Officially, the Church considers the practice a sin, but it is not murder until the quickening, that moment four or five months along when the soul enters the body, and so a nun providing this care to her community is not remarkable, but merely practical.
The Romans have their silphium and the Chinese have achyranthes root. The Shoshone have stoneseed, the Lakota have sagewort, the Hawaiians have elixirs of hau, noni, ‘awa, and young kī leaves. The Victorians have their tansy tea and savin, their ergot of rye, their black draught and mallow and motherwort. Millennials have got mifepristone and misoprostol, and the climate generation has gestational blocks and yellow pills droned straight to the bathroom chute.
It is 1750—seventeen fucking fifty—and Mary is consulting a dog-eared copy of The American Instructor, the greatly popular household textbook. It is not an arithmetic lesson that occupies her today—though math will come in useful—but an entry in the medical section at the back.
Mary is reading instructions on how to cure that most common of complaints among unmarry’d Women: the SUPPRESSION of the COURSES. Mary’s courses are suppressed, all right, have been for weeks, and as a widow of certain means and a disinclination to marry again, it isn’t the first time she’s had to consult this home remedy. To cure her Misfortune, she’s got to purge with Belly-ach Root and then drink Pennyroyal Water with Spirits of Harts-horn twice a day for nine days, then take three days rest, then go on again for nine more days. It’s a pain, but better than the alternative.
(It is 1750, and across the vast tracts of North America there are dozens of Indigenous tribes with more than a hundred alternatives, but Mary has just got this book.)
She emits a light, “Fah,” at the warnings and preventative measures listed at the end of the passage, as she always does. They conclude with a prim exhortation not to long for pretty Fellows, or any other Trash whatsoever. Her current fellow is not trash—he is really rather respectable—but Mary has no desire to shackle her person or her estate to another master, no matter how pretty. She watched her mother die on the birthing bed at age 42. She watched her sisters fade to shadows under the demands of overfull houses.
The death of her first husband has given Mary the freedom to move about as she wishes; to run her own household and control her own fate.
She isn’t going to give that up lightly.
It is 2119, and Grace hasn’t given up, but the years have been painful and slow.
Today, she is getting out of prison.
She’s not the same woman she was. She’s angrier. She’s hurting. She has a permanent cough from the last virus to run rampant through the prison population. But after twelve years, she’s just as scared of reentering the world outside as she is of never seeing it again.
Olivia is waiting in the parking lot. They stare at each other for a moment that burns like a California wildfire and then they fall into one another’s arms.
There’s a child in the backseat of Olivia’s car, four years old and squashed nose-first against the glass. He’s named Raley, after the activist who made the marriage of his mothers possible after so many decades in which it was not. The tide is turning on bodily autonomy again. One generation’s fight to choose their partners is fueling the fight to choose the size of their families—a reversal of the historic civil rights progression that will inspire dissertation topics for years to come.
“I missed you,” Olivia says.
“I missed everything.” Grace has held herself together for so long, she refuses to break down in the parking lot ten feet from the damn gate—but she comes close.
And then Olivia says, “I’m speaking at the decision next week. Will you come?”
Grace flinches. It’s too much, too soon. Her world has been reduced to a handful of walls and familiar faces for years, and now Olivia is asking her to stand up in front of one hundred thousand people?
“Please,” Olivia says.
Grace shuts her eyes.
The world continued to burn while she was gone. The last decade has seen ever more flooding and fire, hurricanes and heat waves, collapsing coastlines and viruses named for every letter of the alphabet. Some of these disasters hit the prison, in the form of power outages and spoiled food and illness and neglect, but others were only items in the news, dire glimpses of the life waiting for them outside. Grace has missed riots and assassinations. She’s missed a national strike and no small number of election day bombings. But there are strides being made, small victories being won, and Olivia truly believes that a big one is coming next week.
It’s happening. The final vote. Congress is on the verge of overturning the ban and returning some measure of bodily autonomy to more than half the population. There isn’t a supply chain in place for abortion medication anymore; there aren’t many doctors trained in the scant emergency procedures they are occasionally allowed to perform, and they certainly won’t be welcoming any black-market midwives into their fold to make up the deficit. But they have a president waiting to sign. They have businesses eager to flood the market. They have a multi-million-dollar video campaign ready to roll out, complete with celebrity cameos.
If it passes. If.
If it doesn’t, then things are going to get ugliest exactly where Olivia is asking her to be. There will be violence. Tear gas deployed by drone and skirmishes with National Guard robotics. There will be arrests in the thousands.
Grace imagines that chaos and suddenly she’s nine years old again, being dragged into the spotlight as a poster child for uterine regulation. She’s hearing her fate screamed through a bullhorn, she is stepping up to the mic and agreeing my mother saved my life and your mother saved yours, she is two months shy of turning eighteen and nursing the sting of a slap on her face, she is locked in her room except for mealtimes and exercise, she is locked in her cell except for mealtimes and exercise, she is watching her entire life pass by and wondering who she would have been if she’d been allowed to make up her own mind.
Her mother helped break this world. Her daughter is trying to fix it.
She looks at little Raley, his face still pressed to the car window, watching her, wondering what kind of person this prison grandmother of his is, and she’s wondering the same thing. She says, “I’ll go.”
It is 2119, and Olivia is standing on stage with a dozen people behind her and a hundred thousand in front. Her wife is at her side, their marriage barely two years legal. Her son is wedged between them, dazzled by the lights.
The Senate steps are filled with shoulder-to-shoulder policing units, blue lights blinking on their boxy chests. The air is full of cameras—military surveillance and media coverage and endless proxies from supporters who could not make it in person.
It is Olivia’s turn to speak. She is here to represent the grassroots group she joined the day she ran away from her grandmother’s house, living couch to couch and paycheck to paycheck. She is here to represent everyone else who has struggled to build a life on an obstacle course.
She shouts, “There is no justification for obeying an immoral law!” and the roar from the crowd is deafening. She pulls Raley tight to her side, a child she chose, and she speaks of the past and the present and the future.
“At every turn, we’ve sought to know more about our bodies,” she says. “And at every turn, that knowledge has been used to rope us in tighter, to set the deadline shorter, to put private decisions in the hands of public officials, as if we can’t be trusted to choose for ourselves.”
Olivia flings her other arm wide. She says, “We only want to control our own destinies! We want to decide the course of our lives, and not see every scientific advance weaponized against us. It is 2119, and I would not have this child if I’d been forced to term before I was ready, before I had a home worth sharing. And—”
It is 1350 BCE, and she is urinating on bags of wheat and barley seeds, waiting to see how quickly they will sprout. It works more often than you’d think.
She just wants to know, so she can plan, either way. And—
It is 1021, and she is watching the shah’s physician pour sulfur over her urine, looking for the worms he believes will spring from the mix. It doesn’t work any better than you’d think.
She just wants to know, so she can plan, either way. And—
It is 1658, and she is waiting at the home of the local piss prophet. He holds the matula up to the light, peering through the glass to assess the color of the liquid within.
She just wants to know, so she can plan either way. And—
It is 1998, and Lee Berger just identified the fungus causing a decades’ long decline in Australian frog species. It was carried on the skin of our old friend Xenopus laevis, exported by the tens of thousands for urine-injection-pregnancy tests, and now it is threatening extinction to thirty percent of the world’s amphibians.
It’s unfortunate as hell for the frogs, but all of those people just wanted to know, so they could plan either way. Because—
—because she is still ten thousand dollars in debt from her last time giving birth.
—because if she stops taking her medication, she will die.
—because the thought makes him vomit, makes him faint, he wouldn’t survive it.
—because if they don’t finish school, they’ll be raising this baby in their parent’s basement.
—because she simply doesn’t want to, she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t need to be on her deathbed or underage or running from a monster, her doctor said she couldn’t get her tubes tied unless she had three children already, but where’s the logic in giving birth to three children for the permission to have none?
It is 2084 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”
It is 2206 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”
It is 1878 and Madame Restell is bleeding to death in her bathtub rather than submit to another trial. It is 1821 and Asenath Smith is fleeing town in disgrace. It is 1972 and seven of the women of Jane have just been arrested in a raid. It is 2086 and Grace’s medical record has been officially upgraded to that most precarious of categories: potential to become pregnant.
It is 2022 and it isn’t over.
It is 2022 and it is never over.
(Editors’ Note: “Rabbit Test” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 49A.)
© 2022 Samantha Mills