Carrying the FutureThere’s No Birth Control in Future Dystopias

Imagine this: The Earth has become overpopulated, can no longer sustain human life, and people are starving due to a food shortage. In a bid to save humanity, scientists engineer a super crop that grows quickly and solves the worldwide famine. But the new crops also increase fertility, leading to a sharp and immediate uptick in multiples and birth defects. To slow population growth, the Child Allocation Bureau, a shady government agency, enforces a strict one-child policy. This is the premise of the new Netflix film What Happened to Monday. Noomi Rapace stars as seven septuplets—named after the days of the week—who are sharing the public-facing identity “Karen Settman” to survive a world that has outlawed siblings.

While I thoroughly enjoyed What Happened To Monday, I’m bothered by the film’s failure to address a massive plot hole: birth control. The film never once mentions birth control or acknowledges its role in accomplishing the larger society’s goal of having fewer babies. Rather than taking preemptive measures to prevent more births, siblings are relinquished to the Child Allocation Bureau to be put into “cryosleep” until the world’s environmental problems have been resolved. It is later revealed that the children are really being burned alive and disposed of, a process that’s hidden from the public. While burning children satisfies the mechanics of the plot, it’s lazy for the film’s writers to ignore obvious solutions that already exist.

After the implosion of the CAB, pregnant women come out of hiding, no longer afraid that their children will be taken from them. I found this curious because selective reduction of multiple pregnancies is a procedure that happens even today when the mother’s or fetus’s lives are at risk. Why wouldn’t these medical procedures be available in a society with a vested interest in reducing the number of live births? And if they are not available because of moral issues similar to the ones plaguing us today, why not simply address this? At every stage of the human reproductive process, there are medical interventions that could mitigate the scenarios that the film posits. It’s a deliberate choice not to depict the very real options available to women to control their fertility. The science exists and would make the storytelling more compelling, so why not incorporate it into the narrative?

This failure isn’t unique to What Happened to Monday: Reproductive complications are often glossed over or ignored in dystopian fiction. The “mystical pregnancy” has long been mined as fodder in speculative fiction. As writer and feminist Anita Sarkeesian noted in her “Tropes vs Women” video series, the mystical pregnancy can be explained as a “a trope writers use to create drama and terror by invading, violating, and exploiting women’s reproductive capabilities.” In filmic dystopias, they are routinely used to deny female characters autonomy over their own bodies. In 2006’s Children of Men, a young pregnant refugee is used as a political football in a world where the birth rate has dropped to zero. In 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Splendid the Angharad’s pregnancy is used to enslave her.

1997’s Gattaca envisions a world in which children conceived without artificial intervention are considered “invalid” and face discrimination. 2013’s Snowpiercer situates poor people in the back of a perpetually moving train, from which small children are plucked from their mothers to replace damaged parts of the machine. CBS’s now cancelled Extant focused on an astronaut impregnated by aliens as a means to seek refuge on earth. Even the much beloved Grey’s Anatomy is full of pregnancies and births that endanger and traumatize its female characters. Over and over we’re told that a woman’s reproductive abilities are both not her own and out of her control. Very few stories depict a woman’s sober choice to conceive and labor on her own terms.

It’s hard not to see the dystopian mismanagement of fertility as a symptom of a larger disregard for women’s stories. Since fertility and reproduction are firmly situated in the realm of female narratives, the neglect for the practical concerns of say, managing a period during the apocalypse, may not be in the forefront of a creator’s mind. In a way, this reveals larger cultural attitudes about women’s fertility. Reproductive care is seen as an individual responsibility, rather than something that society at large has a vested interest in managing on a social or economic level. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from our current climate of punishing women for their reproductive choices to a future in which fertility is deemed unmentionable and people are left to create their own patchwork solutions. It’s exactly the same thing that happened before abortion became more accessible.

The recent rise of female-driven YA fiction should’ve addressed these concerns. But in everything from The Hunger Games to The 100, controlling one’s own fertility is given little practical consideration. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is ambivalent about children and cannot imagine bringing them into the dystopian world she inhabits. Though she eventually capitulates, the books and movies never address how she avoided getting pregnant. In The 100, a one-child policy is instituted to deal with the waning resources of their spacecraft, but the show doesn’t mention how it’s being enforced—save a passing mention of IUDs. Instead, the focus is placed on mothers being punished for “stealing” the community’s resources.

Even when dealing specifically with “women’s stories,” reproductive concerns aren’t given the necessary narrative weight, especially considering the fact that so many of these stories include romance, sex, and intimacy. Even China’s famous one-child policy included medical checks and balances for ensuring that no one family would have too many children, including a requirement that women have IUDs inserted after birthing their first child, and sterilization after the second. Assuming that these dystopias occur in the futures of our current world, it would make sense that birth control should be the first line of defense.

Naturally, institutional mandates for birth control call to mind the forcible sterilization of vulnerable populations. The West has a poor track record of granting access to birth control across racial and class lines. This is compounded by the fact that the responsibility for preventing pregnancy has largely fallen to women throughout history, and thus attempts to control it have resulted in the control of women’s bodies. Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale does an excellent job of exploring the ways in which women’s bodies are often reduced to their womb and its ability (or lack thereof) to produce children.

But reproductive restrictions are always intersected and compounded by identity; not all women are equally at risk. Even today, women with the privileges of race, class, and access are able to circumvent policies that in practice should also affect them. This would very likely also be true in a dystopian future and by not interrogating how this would look in the real world, we both neglect greater storytelling opportunities and sidestep the truth about our current attitudes toward different classes of women. 

Cate Young, a dark-skinned Black woman with long, multicolored braids and glasses, smiles at the camera
by Cate Young
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Cate Young is a freelance film and culture critic. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, NPR Music, Vulture, The Cut, and Paper. Cate was the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow for Pop Culture Criticism and currently works as an audio producer in Los Angeles.

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