by Felicity Shoulders
Childbirth has been a fraught topic for science fiction from the beginning. The genre’s acclaimed “mother,” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was herself born of a remarkable woman who died eleven days afterward. Before Mary’s own eighteenth birthday, she bore her first child, a premature daughter who died in the night two weeks later. Perhaps it’s no wonder her first science fiction novel—some would claim the first science fiction novel ever—centered on a person created rather than born.
Every human that has ever lived has gestated inside another’s body. Even now, when so many pregnancies begin with embryos fertilized in vitro, that record stands. Pregnancy is still a perilous endeavor. Medical technology has identified the postpartum infection that killed Mary Shelley’s mother and so many others; placental abruption is no longer an almost inescapable death sentence. Where the resources exist, dangerous pregnancies can be identified beforehand, and medical interventions abound. But childbearing isn’t just a medical question: the maternal mortality rate in the United States, where I live, has more than doubled in my lifetime, and was already uniquely bad for such a wealthy nation. Experts attribute this to our lack of midwives, our system of non-universal healthcare, and our institutionalized racism. Making pregnancy safe and easy is not just a technological problem.
In science fiction, pregnancy and childbirth have been “solved” and adjusted in various ways: completely effective contraception, at-will uterus growth, genetic engineering, and especially artificial wombs. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, the technologically advanced Beta Colony has developed “uterine replicators” so that pregnancy need not affect the health, career, or lifestyle of the parents. Along with that bodily freedom, however, Betans accept the necessity of applying for a parenting license in order to reproduce. This is one of the milder social counterweights science fiction offers to the safety and convenience of artificial wombs: think of the “decanted” babies in Brave New World, engineered for specific social functions in a controlled society; think of the humans born into electrical bondage in the Matrix movies, and the moral horror with which Morpheus speaks of the “endless fields where human beings are no longer born,” but “grown.”
The bond between a human fetus and the parent gestating it is literal, visceral, and biologically real. In literature, it often becomes symbolic: the babies coming out of artificial wombs are often mass-produced, manufactured, dehumanized.
The bond between a human fetus and the parent gestating it is literal, visceral, and biologically real. In literature, it often becomes symbolic: the babies coming out of artificial wombs are often mass-produced, manufactured, dehumanized. But as Bujold’s Betans would be the first to point out, automating pregnancy would be immensely convenient to the individual, loving parent. Their technology allows wanted pregnancies to continue when a mother’s health is in doubt; it can transfer the problem of an unwanted pregnancy from one parent to the other.
But we don’t have uterine replicators, though someday soon we might be able to give premature babies support and care in something very similar. We only have the biological technology of surrogacy.
In “Somebody’s Child,” in the March/April issue of Asimov’s [on sale now!], I posit a world where technology has vastly expanded surrogacy’s reach. In our world, surrogates are implanted with someone else’s embryos from IVF; in the alternate present of my novelette, pregnancies can be “suspended’”and removed, as on Beta Colony, but without the ethically clean option of an artificial womb. Decades of frozen embryos have accumulated, the lived reality of American women piling up and crushing the rosy political compromise of pregnancies never ended, but was put on indefinite “pause.’”
Childbearing is a deeply personal choice—taking on the risk to one’s health, the legal ties, the possibility of strange and sometimes permanent bodily transformations. But society, and even nations, also consider themselves to hold a stake. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen articles fretting over the decline in rates of pregnancy and birth, and its long-term economic impact. Concern for the economy isn’t likely to sell a new pregnancy to anyone huddling at home with cabin fever, a day full of Zoom meetings and several small children trying to log onto educational websites; but then, in the real United States, parenting is unpaid, unrepresented by unions, and often under-appreciated.
In “Somebody’s Child,” childbearing is recognized and compensated as work, and childrearing is a job a healthy young woman can take on like national service—but only if she’s willing to bear a pregnancy for someone else, someone who died without resuming their “paused” pregnancy. It’s hard for the “mother” and harder on the kid, and Irene, born to a teenage surrogate herself, knows it, but that didn’t stop her choosing it herself.