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The Pregnant Body Problem

“They forced you to have kids?” the man asked.

“One of them surprised me,” she said. “It made me pregnant, then told me about it. Said it was giving me what I wanted but would never come out and ask for.”

“Was it?”

“Yes.” She shook her head from side to side. “Oh, yes. But if I had the strength not to ask, it should have had the strength to let me alone.”
― Octavia E. Butler, Adulthood Rites

 

The pregnant body in speculative fiction is almost as fraught and as vulnerable a thing as it is in real life. Pioneers of genre like Butler have dilated the question of choice and implanted her stories right in the uterine wall of genre. Others have offered halfheartedly explained deaths in childbirth that often remove women and birthing people from these stories to create magical orphans. Science fiction has supplied alien interbreeding, external uterus technology, sexless humans getting their babies through the mail, and the possibility of human parthenogenesis.

Octavia Butler wrote around this question best, because she understood that it cannot be written clear through. She was not afraid to confront the ambivalence of the desire to reproduce, the innate violence in the human soul, or the seeming inevitability of this fight.

The question of choice, the one posed by the Butler quote above, is central to the issue of pregnancy: the body must give birth and the body might not choose to be pregnant, to stay pregnant, or to die in the process of partition. This conundrum presents itself in life and in fiction with that vulnerability front and center: consider the fragile humanity of Zan, the only person who can enter the world-ship meant to save humanity in The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley. Zan represents the position of all women in the Legion: they must do what their civilization demands of them, giving birth to not only babies but biomechanical parts and machines, to food, and ultimately to worlds. Hurley’s requirement for birthing is not by choice; it is by necessity. Hurley sums it up: “Control of fecundity is something every woman wants, and each believes is her birthright. The worlds have other ideas, and it eventually led to their destruction.”

Humanity lives eternally in that struggle for control, and yet necessity is not commonly defended as the reason that anyone with a uterus must give birth. Instead, the requirement is often described as a dimension of punishment: those who have sex must be made to give birth. It is couched as a right to life above all else: those who have been conceived must live. It is through this unnecessary enforced misery and unsupported early life for the uninvited that people who can give birth are oppressed for that very wonder their body can perform. This tension between the rights of the individual to decide whether to give birth and the right of their society to use birth as a punishment has been a spare part in American politics: sometimes a tent pole, sometimes a wedge, sometimes a third rail. The right to choose is a Leatherman’s multitool: always in a politician’s pocket, ready to cut or unscrew lives as needed to make a point.

Pregnancy is a uniquely vulnerable condition for the human body. Being pregnant is dangerous, giving birth is dangerous, and being perceived as a body who can get pregnant is dangerous.

Fiction writers use this same tool, and sometimes open the eyes of the reader. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale bears reasonable criticism for rehashing the suffering of women of color as the imagined oppression of white women, and for breezing past the wholesale genocide of queers. However, it has put the issue of whether people who can give birth belong to themselves or to the society they live in right into the American living room again. This horror has echoed in the work of authors like Leni Zumas, whose novel Red Clocks examines the fates of five individual women who live in a future where both abortion and in vitro fertilization have been outlawed. Authors today can draw inspiration from James Tiptree Jr., Lois McMaster Bujold, and Joanna Russ on the subject about what a woman is and what a woman is for. They can apply it to pregnancy, to womanhood itself, to what it means to be human. And they do.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber looks carefully at the connection between the inherent violence of birth and the complicated relationship between men and women—that is to say people who can impregnate and people who can carry children. Hopkinson’s vision of the anxiety and isolation of maternity is eye-opening, placing the dynamic in the context of a diasporic household but returning to near-universal human emotions concerning sexual violence and incest, as well as childbearing and parenting.

Vulnerability can be set aside, as in short stories like “Babies Come from Earth” by Louis Evans, where human colonists must request and wait for their offspring, which are conveniently manufactured elsewhere. It can be destroyed entirely to save humanity from having to answer the question, as in Children of Men by P.D. James. It can be outsourced to people who have no choice economically than to carry and birth the children of others, as in Joanne Ramos’s The Farm. It can be displaced from humanity as in cyborg pregnancy represented in dramatic presentations including Blade Runner 2049 and Battlestar Galactica (2004), both of which pose the question of whether a being shaped like a human, capable of sentience and human feeling, which gives birth to young like itself and rears them as humans do is indeed a human. Pregnancy can be projected on to male-identified bodies, as in Alien Nation (1989) or Enemy Mine (1985). Neither the removal of expected gender roles nor the denial of humanity saves anyone from what pregnancy is and remains: a danger to the individual, an assertion of self-determination, and the right to privacy in one’s own body.

The body that can get pregnant might disrupt the expectation of monogamy. In our lives, this is evidenced by confusion or obfuscation over paternity. In fiction, the idea has been explored by authors like Bina Shah in Before She Sleeps, a novel about women required to take multiple husbands to increase population numbers. Or this same body might become property of the state through the state’s own blunders; Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male takes on the gender disparity caused by China’s one-child policy and the resulting surfeit of men who must choose either to never marry, or else to marry second or third behind more important husbands—and fathers. In my own novel, The Book of Etta, a body that can successfully birth children becomes the most valuable thing in the world, attracting hives of lovers and protectors based on that power—but it doesn’t set them free.

No body that can carry a child and give birth is free. Until the right to privacy is secured, codified, enshrined, and acknowledged by every government around the world, no body is free. No body is safe. These stories and novels and movies and television shows show us what it means to be human while that freedom is still in short supply. They always have.

We tell this story over and over, because the fight is inevitable. This fight will never end. The right to choose must be vigilantly defended, until babies come from appliances or off-world cabbage patches; until we are not birthed by bodies into bodies. While the body lives, it belongs only to itself. The pregnant body is simultaneously the most valuable and the most vulnerable one in our society. The pregnant body has the absolute inalienable right to own and to defend itself, within and without.

Each of these stories, coming from different writers and different times reminds us why that is true. When we do not read them and heed their warning, reality will take their place.

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Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, “Big Girl” with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, “Find Layla” was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, “Number One Fan,” will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

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