Mar 3, 2012

Birth Control: Dystopias on Reproductive Rights

Sonogram from Microsoft Clip Art
Today I’d like to talk about a trend within a trend that I keep bumping into (no pun intended...okay, maybe pun a little intended).  Dystopian novels usually make an important allegory for the present, and that allegory most often has something to do with our right to choose.  Our jobs, who we spend our lives with, where we live, our privacy etc.  There is one choice in particular that I’ve found to frequent the plot lines of these stories, and that is the right to choose when, if, and how to have children.  I want to open this one up for the floor, largely because this is a topic I’m not set on and when I don’t know how I feel about something, I like to see other takes.  Here are some of the books that include this theme--they range from classics and adult novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale (one of my all time favs) to recent young adult, such as Partials, released this last week:

Now, I admittedly have only read half of these books (Anthem, The Handmaid’s Tale, Partials, When She Woke), and that is in large part due to this common theme (I don’t like being too repetitive with my reads).  Reproductive rights, while not always the main theme, are an important driving force in each of these stories.  

To me, reproductive rights are an interesting and important topic of choice for dystopias because it tends to be a hot-button issue that is difficult to address in contemporary fiction.  That said, I am beginning to wonder how much it is really being used to create discourse on the topic.  I’ve found that the bulk of books that broach this subject are written from the same stance, that is, the stance that women should reserve the right to choose when, how, and if to have children no matter the situation.  Being a feminist myself, I agree with this stance, but I also think that only presenting one side of an argument can keep us from really thinking about the implications of a situation.  This is bad.  I like to read and see things that I disagree with, because by understanding others’ arguments we are able to more intelligently determine our own stance, as well as broaden our world view.  

Book cover of Partials by Dan Wells

This past week I finished reading Partials, which addresses this issue in the form of The Hope Act (I don’t really feel like I have spoilers here, just wanna talk about this aspect more in-depth--you don’t have to have read it!).  The Hope Act has been enacted because 99% of the human population has been eradicated from the earth, largely by a virus called RM.  The small portion of the human population who have found themselves immune have created The Hope Act in order to ensure the future of humanity.  This act requires all women 18 and over to give birth once a year, with the hope that with more babies to study they are more likely to find a cure for the virus.  However, after a decade, they are no closer to this cure, and all babies die within three days of being born.  One of the things I appreciated most about Partials was that Dan Wells argued both sides of The Hope Act very well.  Even our heroine, Kira, who disagreed with The Hope Act on a personal level could see the reason for it and at times found herself arguing in its defense.

I appreciated this fact a lot, especially because Partials is a novel written for young adults.  I’ll admit it--I’m kind of uncomfortable with the amount of YA books out there that address teenage marriage and/or pregnancy.  I like that we’re giving teens enough credit these days to address big issues that are real, but at the same time, I hope that we’re teaching them to think for themselves like Kira in Partials.  I’m not saying that because a teen reads a dystopian novel where young women are forced to give birth they will want to get knocked up, most likely the opposite, I’m saying that I want to make teens (and anyone for that matter) think about these things.  I don't want them to only get one half of the argument and choose their position accordingly. This is what makes dystopian novels great book club picks!  You can really delve into how the society got to where it is--why these decisions were deemed necessary, and what situation could be extreme enough to warrant stripping away reproductive rights.

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here, honestly, it’s just a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time now and wanted to see what others thought.  While I loved both The Handmaid’s Tale and When She Woke, I feel like both sides were represented very unevenly.  The anti-reproductive rights side was obviously extreme, repressive, and ‘wrong’.  I’d like to see more dystopias argue both sides enough that you can really understand them without judging outright.  Do any of the other four books I mentioned do this, or do you have other reading suggestions for me?  Do you think we're helping our teens to think, or driving them toward one given point of view? Please share your own thoughts on reproductive rights in dystopias.


  1. I am reading Partials now and I really enjoy it.

    I have not read many dystopian novels that talk about reproduction. But I have been wanting to read The Handmaid's Tail and Withered.

    1. You should check out The Handmaid's Tale! Like I mentioned, it's one of my all time favorites. I think it's really unique in the dystopian genre because the characters in it remember the world falling apart and this society forming--it's not 10s to 100s of years after the fact. That's what makes the social changes so utterly hard to swallow.

      I hope you enjoy Partials, excited to hear what you think! I liked it, but not as much as most people seem to have. Still, enough that I'm going to keep going with the series (and am totally rewatching BSG again).

  2. I really agree with you about Partials, I loved how Kira saw both the good and the bad things about the Hope Act. Because if humanity is dying, it is everyone's responsibility to help in any way they can, even if that means having children earlier than what they normally would have chosen. That's the beauty of dystopians, everything is put on the edge. Sure you want to choose when you get pregnant now, in our society, but it's hard to say how you would feel in a world where 99% of the population has died and your children are the only hope for survival:)

    1. Yes! Exactly. I love that The Hope Act and Kira really made you understand what those dire circumstances were like, and how sometimes making a decision that benefits society but hurts personally is the only/best option.

  3. First of all, I love this. ---> "I like to read and see things that I disagree with, because by understanding others’ arguments we are able to more intelligently determine our own stance, as well as broaden our world view." Just wanted to share that.

    Secondly, I love that you point out that books like these make great book club picks.

    Third, I agree with the thoughts on Kira and the Hope Act. I love how it was shown from both angles, even though I knew how I felt as a reader. Kira showed maturity in her thoughts and her ability to think on both sides even though it made her sad. She knew her part, yet she also knew she just wasn't ready for that sort of responsibility.

    I sort of felt like reproductive issues come up in Eve by Anna Carey and also in The Giver by Lois Lowry. Not sure if you've read those or not. In Article 5 by Kristen Simmons, it is a little bit different of a situation in that the government changes the laws to Moral Statutes based on, well, what they consider moral, and reproductive issues come up in there as well in the form of having children as an unmarried parent. These are more great discussion books, I think.

    1. Thanks Asheley! I'm glad you felt that way about Kira as well. I have read The Giver, but in elementary school, so it's been close to 20 years and I really need to do a reread. I haven't read Eve, but I keep almost checking out the audiobook from the library and one of these days I will. I've been on the fence about Article 5, but it might be worth reading just to discuss, thanks for the suggestions.

  4. I think you make a great point about the books being extremely one-sided, I never really thought about it. (On the other hand, it is really hard to see a good defense for controlling childbirth/child raising.)

    To me, it just represents one of the cruelest ways a government/society can control it's people. Especially in The Handmaid's Tale. Like, if you read that people aren't free to raise their kids or make their own decisions regarding birth - you automatically know that the government is wrong.

    Partials is interesting though, because you really can see where the government is coming from. I didn't realize, until now, how original/amazing that is. That there really might be justification for their decisions (whether or not you agree with them).

    Anyway, I obviously don't 100% know how I feel either. But this was very thought-provoking!

    1. Glad you find it as complicated as I do! It can be hard to justify, but I think that to be a really good book, it does need to be justified. 99% of humanity being dead, and no children under 14 surviving is justification in a way, and I appreciate this even if making 'children' who can't even vote on their own fates subject to such a law is in no way okay. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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