some Sci Fi answers to issues of gender & pregnancy
Science Fiction has dealt with issues of gender many times. I'm only going to describe a few of my favorites that deal with gender and pregnancy, generally in ways that would make an accidental pregnancy unlikely or impossible.. Some of these are biological , some technological, and some social / cultural. Some could be utilized by Terran humans in the near future or distant future. Some are extremely unlikely, especially those that would require us to have come from a different evolutionary line.
"Submitted for your consideration" , as Rod Serling said.
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I've been a science fiction reader for almost all my life. It's a literature of challenging ideas. Science fiction in the broadest sense includes stories dealing with biology, ethology, cultural assumptions, alternate history, etc , not just rocket ships and space travel. Space travel may just be the way to get to a place and species where the author can pose interesting questions about the human condition.
Rod Serling started The Twilight Zone because there were contemporary issues that he wasn't allowed to examine on mainstream TV, but could examine if the same issues were placed on a distant planet and another species. Eg "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" is about block-busting, one facet of racism.
Star Trek too tackled many of our worst social problems. Eg "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" is, again, racism. The original series also had an episode, "The Mark of Gideon", on the horrors of over-population carried to its extreme and the necessity of some form of birth limitation or the need to create a plague to increase the death rate..
There were great science fiction written long before space ships. Gulliver's Travels is excellent science fiction, travel by sailing ship to unexplored parts of our planet being just as good a vehicle as travel by FTL space ship to a galaxy far away.
My topic for this article is science fiction that deals with issues of gender and reproduction. Chiefly stories that posit situations in which biological gender or technology or social culture makes accidental pregnancy or accidental reproduction very unlikely or impossible, thus the potential for controversy over contraception and abortion does not arise.
My very favorite authors, each of whom has dealt with these topics (and others) wonderfully, are Ursula LeGuin, Eleanor Arnason, and Sherri Tepper. James Tiptree Jr has also written many stories that revolve around gender, and a very distinguished prize for gender stories is named after her. (No, "her" is not a typo : "Tiptree" was the principal nom de plume for Alice B Sheldon, who also occasionally used the name Racoona Sheldon..)
I don't have an obvious order for these. Each posits some difference , some "what if", from the human condition prevailing at the time the story was written. In a few cases I will be discussing themes or episodes from TV science fiction, mostly from Star Trek series.
Two themes I have not yet seen and think could be wonderful basis for SF would be (1) intelligent race evolved from marsupial mammals, and (2) intelligent race evolved from monotreme mammals. These two types encountering Terran humans (placental mammals) and trying to make sense of our controversies over contraception and abortion.
Marsupial fetuses are "born" at extremely early state (embryonic or very early fetal state) and migrate into the female's pouch where they complete the remainder of their development. Any female not wishing to raise that particular fetus need only toss it out of her pouch. (Our Terran kangaroos if closely pursued by a predator will lighten their load by tossing the "joey" out of the pouch, thus the predator pauses to enjoy this snack while the load-lightened kangaroo speeds up and escapes.).
Monotremes lay eggs and then must incubate them and then rear the hatchlings. So any monotreme not willing to raise offspring needs only abandon the eggs rather than incubate them. Or let someone else who actually wants to parent the hatchlings take over incubation and rearing.. As in many Terran species of birds, it's likely that the other parent would have to share incubation duties and share in food gathering and protection of hatchlings.
Brave New Worls posits several "what if"s, all of them plausible as future possibilities . The technology is that of artificial womb, ie "bottle babies". Conditions during fetal development can be manipulated to enhance or damage the capabilities of the resulting child, including production of mentally deficient ones who will not be bored when performing simple repetitive work tasks. The most critical biological condition is the production of monozygotic twins in batches of up to 64 by causing the 64 cell stage of embryo to separate into 64 embryos. A further biological-technological condition is the causing of most female fetuses to become sterile "freemartins" by application of hormone treatment, something that happens naturally in cattle when there is a female fetus and a male one in the same womb (because they share blood circulation). A further technology is the removal of ovaries from non-freemartin fetuses or infants and keeping those excised ovaries productive of ova in vitro.. The relatively few fertile women would be drilled from early childhood in the practice of contraception. termed "Malthusian Drill", method of this not being specified, perhaps the cervical cap or the diaphragm, both being known at the time the novel was written and almost certainly known to Huxley .
Production of freemartin females by use of added testosterone to an XX embryo is not applicable to humans, as a shot of testosterone to the fetus in early development would produce a sterile morphological male rather than a sterile morphological female. But it was a logical idea.
However because an XY embryo will not develop into a male unless it receives a dose of testosterone at the right time during early development, exposing the XY embryo to a testosterone blocking drug during that phase quite likely would result in a chromosomally male but morphologically female with internal female organs but sterile. Voila, the desired freemartin. She would be indistinguishable from a normal XX female unless cells were checked for Barr bodies or karyotype. Testosterone blocking drugs are available and used for treatment of prostate cancer. Baldness prevention drugs also have some testosterone blocking properties, but probably not as powerful as the anti-prostate testosterone blockers. This would be an interesting experiment. Because dogs use this same system of sex development, one might try it on dogs..
As of 2018 , we still do not have any kind of artificial womb. Some feminist writers (notably Shulamith Firestone) have declared the use of artificial wombs as essential for full equality of women with men.
We do have several instances of successful organ transplantation of a uterus from one woman to another. In at least one of these cases there was a subsequent successful pregnancy in the transplant recipient. But we have not yet had transplantation of a gravid (pregnant) uterus from one woman to another , much less to a male recipient. .
I don't think we have yet a method for maintaining an excised ovary ex vivo and keeping it productive of fertile ova. We do have hormone treatments that can induce a woman to ripen and ovulate several ova at once. Long term risks to that woman are as yet unknown and could turn out to be harmful.
Aldous was brother to Julian Huxley, one of the leading biologists of the time. The Huxley line being a line of scientists, most notably Thomas Huxley , "Darwin's Bulldog". So all of the invented biologic technology was within range of potential possibility according to the knowledge of the time and none of it impossible in our future.
Brave New World was published in 1931. Brave New World Revisited was published 27 years later, analyzing how many of the predicted changes were arriving much sooner than expected. Huxley's greatest concern was human over-population. Very much worth reading.
After a population explosion there has been some kind of catastrophic depopulation, largely due to warfare. Solution One was widespread cloning from several outstanding individuals who managed to salvage humanity out of disaster. Solution Two was re-development of agriculture based on high yield genetically uniform plant strains. Solution Three was cultural (and partly genetic ?) : homosexuality is now the normal form of attraction and attachment, though the relatively rare atavistic heterosexuals are tolorated. Child production is deliberate and limited in numbers so as to prevent growth of excessive population.
This is very much a cautionary tale as regards agricultural monoculture of genetically uniform strains. Without a genetic diversity of strains, vital food plants prove vulnerable to disease. Such a disease strikes a valued plant species and threatens to wipe it out. The caution against eliminating genetic diversity in humans is also quite clear.
Mitchison was sister to JBS Haldane, the very great biologist and population geneticist. The Haldane family and the Huxley family were very close and the children of both were playmates, considered to be so much close kin that chaperones were not required. Naomi and John were playmates with Aldous and Julian. So young Naomi was encouraged in interest in writing and knowledge of biological science. Naomi from early youth was a writer, sometimes of very challenging ideas, and over her lifetime produced about 100 novels.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a great work of SF and highly regarded for literary merit. The novel takes place on the planet Gethan, also called Winter because of the climate just emerging from a glacial period. The people are functional hermaphrodites who are neuter and not sexually motivated during most of their cycle, then become either male or female during the portion of the cycle, "kemmer", that is sexual. Everyone who is normal will be male at some kemmers and female at others, thus will have both experiences. (Those who become pregnant will remain female during gestation and probably also lactation, then return to the neuter state, having an equal chance to be male or female at the next kemmer period.) At this time in history , contraceptive drugs are well established, and often used, and so are drugs that can supress kemmer, less often used.. Population has been stable for a long time.
Observers from the Ekumen (a league of human-descended worlds) have speculated that the ancestors of the Gethenians were ordinary one-sexed humans which were genetically modified to become cyclic hermaphrodites. Occasionally Gethenian individuals are one-sexed and continually in kemmer. These are considered to be "perverts" but are pitied or tolerated and fill an essential role in the "Fortelling" practice of the semi-monastic Handaratta.
Half the story is told by a Gethenian and half by a Terran who is the Ekumen's Envoy to Gethan. Plus interludes of Gethenian fables and the notes of earlier Observers from the Ekumen.
Stylistically there's the one flaw that LeGuin was unable to come up with a hermaphroditic pronoun and therefore reluctantly uses "he" for the Gethenians. She later commented that this created a bias for readers. In later tales , short stories, in the Gethenian world she corrects this.
In the introduction , Le Guin makes two very important observations . One is that "the business of an artist is to tell lies", ie that an artist or writer is selective about which lies and truths to tell in order to bring out some really important Truth. The other is that "we humans are already somewhat hermaphroditic" in some ways and at some times and in some situations. To me this means that we almost all violate and transcend whatever gender personality and behavior norms our culture had dictated and tried to impose on us. Anyone who always obeyed those cultural norms would be a drastically impaired personality. (Different cultures construct different gender norms, but each of these norms dictate a seriously incompete and flawed personality.)
Would it be possible to bio-engineer humans to be functionally hermaphroditic ? Yes, it might be. Even without intervention, the birth of structurally hermaphrodites or inter-sexes occurs far more often than most people think, though probably none of them would be fertile in both roles or even in just one role. Until fairly recent years, the parents and surgeon made a choice to "correct" the morphology to become "normal" male or female, thus imposing their choice on the infant. More recently surgery is delayed until the child can make a choice.. With what is known about the genetics and molecular genetics of sex determination, it's not unreasonable to think that creation of hermaphrodites might be possible. But since this would be a decision occuring before birth, almost certainly before conception, it would be a decision that was not made by the person affected. Thus it would be highly unethical.
And of course we currently know that "transexual" persons are not rare. And some F to M partly transitioned persons deliberately kept their ovaries and uterus in order to gestate and birth a child then to "chest-feed" the infant.. So at least some of us are indeed mentally "somewhat hermaphroditic" rather blatantly.
(note : there are a few Terran species, mainly fish or amphibian, in which individuals can change sex, usually in circumstances in which there is a great over-abundance of one sex and dearth of the other. I don't know if there is any species in which individuals who have switched once can later change back. )
This is a truely fabulous novel. Le Guin has later written several short stories that illuminate various facets of Gethenian society and history. She's one of the truely great SF authors. Her works usually have a strong anthropological base, hardly surprising when you consider her parentage and upbringing.
A short story in which the menstrual cycle is easily abolished (suspended) by drug treatment. Conception can only take place if that treament is stopped, thus resuming cyling , something regarded as a great sacrifice that a woman makes only if she very much wants a child. Thus presumably there would be zero accidental pregnancies because the large majority of women who joyously embraced the anti-cycling drug when it became available.
Of course there is a youth counter-culture, "the Cyclists". The daughter of the story protagonist intends to join these. Her mother and other women attempt to dissuade her with vastly logical arguments and tales of the bad old days.
The idea that the menstrual cycle could be turned off at will, turned on only when desired, is probably not scientifically far-fetched. Advantages of cycling only a few times in one's life, advantages not mentioned in the story, would include a huge reduction in lifetime risk of breast cancer (as so much of it is estrogen receptor positive and/or progesterone receptor positive), assuming of course that the supressor drug doesn't turn out to be a cancer promoter. Plus, of course, complete elimination of accidental pregnancy.
The Hwarhath culture is one in which all normal people are homosexual. It is well known that true love is possible only with a person of one's own sex. All reproduction is deliberate and arranged by contract between clan matriarchs, largely to cement clan alliances but also with consideration of the qualities of the man and woman to be mated. The birth mother needen't raise the child if she is not so inclined, as other women in the clan will do so willingly.. Breeding requires the male and female to subject themselves to the unpleasantness of heterosexual copulation. . Of course there are a few abnormal people who don't find this disagreeable and even a few "perverts" (tolerated but looked down upon) who are completely heterosexual,..
At a later date in history, breeding can be done by artificial insemination (which is really a very low tech method if done with fresh semen) and some clans have recognized the advantage of genetic selection.
"The Lovers" is about a man who doesn't find breeding activity distasteful and a woman who violates her culture's rules of womanly behavior by being willing and able to fight deadly attackers. "Dapple" is about a girl who wants to be an actor and playwrite, activities the culture decrees are for men only. She will become a great playwrite. "The Potter of Bones" is about a woman, a potter, who develops a theory of evolution. She's what Grey would describe as "a village Darwin" who will remain unpublished, but is famous for her pottery. She and Dapple will become a couple.
An earlier history period novel in the Hawarhath universe is A Woman of the Iron People, and a later period novel is Ring of Swords. The short stories have been collected in "Hwarhath Tales" along with various Hwarhath fables. Some of these rely on The Goddess having a robust sense of humor. Published in 2016. Arnason has been called the best writer of anthropological SF since Le Guin, and she is a Tiptree Award winer.
Could a Terran human culture develop in which homosexual love was considered very normal and desirable and the very best type of love relationship ? It already has happened. The upper classes of ancient Athens and other Greek city-states practiced this and believed this for men. (Women didn't count for much.). The relationship of eromenos and erastes was celebrated and honored. Those not capable of this kind of love were also considered normal enough, though perhaps also considered to be somewhat unfortunate.. Upper class men would eventually marry, usually a much younger girl, in order to beget an heir or two. Extra or defective children were often "exposed". (abandoned, usually resulting in death), the decision to raise the infant or abandon it being made by the male head of household. This culture is regarded as the "Cradle of Democracy", though only freeborn men voted or had any voice in politics. Women and slaves had no voice, though a slave did have the possibility of earning money and buying freedom or of being freed by a kindly master. And there are other Terran cultures in which a period of male to male sexual activity was considered normal , possibly necessary, and was enjoyed by both parties.
On the planet described in this story, the majority of males are neutered (gelded) prior to puberty so as to enable them to behave as rational beings and as non-violent members of society. Each family keeps one good quality male unaltered as their breeding stud. He is kept confined, possibly on a chain, in the family compound. He is consdiered dangerous. (This life sounds a lot like that of a stud horse, kept solitary and often handled somewhat roughly because he is feared..) Most boys hope that they will not be chosen to remain unaltered, because the life of a neutered male is so much more rewarding..
Because unaltered males are confined and controlled, all matings are intentional. There can be no accidental pregnancy. Also no rape. Male (neutered) to male (neutered) violence is rare, though lively disagreements certainly can occur..
The story is about an unaltered male who escapes confinement, then with the help of an off-planet woman (the story's voice) he is enabled to leave the planet and become a movie actor, a job in which his hyper-masculine physical development is an asset. He is tempermentally much more peaceable than his culture believes unaltered males must be. (Again this is a lot like the situation with horses.)
Obviously the technology (gelding) in this story has been known on Terra for millenia and the effect of gelding on male behavior well known in many species of livestock. Gelding of male slaves has been practiced in a number of human cultures, as well as gelding of boys to enable them to retain beautiful high singing voices. All that would be needed to create a similar culture on Earth right now would be the cultural (and legal) determination to do so. Circumcision of the unconsenting (unable to consent) male infant is legally permitted and culturally mandated in some cultures, so why not infant gelding of the majority of male infants ? (Let's not discuss the painful mutilations performed on unconsenting young girls in some cultures. We in the US consider this to be a violation of their human rights, though it is known to be occuring clandestinely in some of our sub-cultures.)
We might do well to geld all convicted child molesters and all who rape by violence or threat of violence or by use of disabling drugs (rohipnol). These are crimes for which the recedevian rate would be greatly reduced by removing the hormone fuel. Unfortunately this would raise 8th Amendment issues as to whether such punishment is "cruel" or "unusual", although to date capital punishment (= execution, not enforced relocation to Washington DC) has not yet been ruled to violate the 8th.
There has been a war, wiping out much of humanity. But now people live in towns, women living inside the gated Women's Country, and men living as warriers in a separate barracks outside of the gated Women's Country towns. Mating occurs at festivals. Boys are sent to live with their soldier fathers after early childhood. Most boys will choose to remain as warriers, but some decline and return to live with the women. The warriers of course despise those who return to live in Women's Country and call them "servitors". Book learning and science are women's province, forbidden to warriers but permitted to servitors.
The women are keeping a secret, one that anyone with basic biology education should be able to guess by half-way through the book. (I won't give it away here).
The basic technology is already known and could be implemented.
On the planet Geta, a very harsh planet where human survival is difficult and famines have been common, the decendants of the original human colonists have developed a culture much different from Earth's. Four fifths of the population's women have are "ovaet" , a condition (arising from a lucky mutation or more likely from genetic enginerring) that enables the woman to "wash out" a very early pregnancy. In effect she can voluntarily induce menstration, shedding of uterine lining, thus either preventing implantation or shedding out the recently implanted embryo. (The details are not specified.) On a planet subject to recurrent famines , the ability to prevent or disrupt pregnancy would have high survival value. When you don't have enough to eat to sustain your own life, you certainly don't have enough extra to sustain a pregnancy (especially 3rd trimester) and you won't have enough extra to sustain the very high nutritional costs of lactation. Thus the gene that enables this voluntary "wash out" would have great individual survival value : rather than starving from continued pregnancy, thus leaving neither this offspring nor any potential future ones, the woman sheds this embryo and survives to have other offspring in the future when food is plentiful. Many of the clans of Getans are expert genetic engineers and almost all clans practice some form of genetic selection in their own breeding. It's not stated whether the ovaet gene was a naturally occurring mutation that spread rapidly or whether it was produced by genetic engineering.
There are a number of cultural innovations, some of which would be abhorrent to most of us, but some of which would be sensible and attractive. The most attractive is that a marriage can consist of up to 6 people. Usually it begins with a couple, then after they have become well adjusted they will seek out additional spouses, usually with regard to balancing of personalities and abilities to sustain the family. For children, a multiple parent situation would be much more secure than a two parent situation. Survival of children would be higher with extra parents and the job of parenting could be easier for each of the parents. (Note : it looks like this is all built on heterosexuality, though maybe we are not being told everything.)
This is an extremely complex novel. Very highly acclaimed. I won't try to go into the details of the culture and politics.
Could voluntary induction of menstration as a pregnancy preventer or disrupter work for humans ? There's not an obvious way to create , genetically engineer, the ability to "wash out" without use of some kind of drug or mechanical means. But "menstrual extraction" , done easily and safely by a woman on herself , has been around for some years before Roe v Wade. Women taught one another how to do this with simple legally available equipment at various women's self-exam self-help health meetings. The idea was to perform this at the time menstruation was expected, thus avoiding the messyness of mensturation and also ending any pregnancy that might have begun. (One wouldn't know that the sucked out fluid contained an embryo, so one needn't consider this to be an abortion.). This is a much simpler procedure than the vacuum aspiration abortion method which can be done somewhat later and which needs to be performed by someone trained to do it with equipment that could be more difficult to obtain. ( Even now menstural extraction is making a big come back, and if Roe is over-ruled it may well become an underground wildfire. It ought to be taught in women's groups in every location where legal abortion is difficult to obtain.)
Alternatively we have "Plan B" , also called "emergency contraception" , which works by preventing implantation and by shedding the uterine lining. This drug available over the counter in some areas or by prescription everywhere. This only works in the first 24 to 72 hours after conception and it's not advised as something to do routeinly (because it requires high dose of hormones), but rather as a methods for such emergencies as a broken or slipped condom or for rape. Even if Roe is over-ruled, Plan B will still be available over the internet, likewise RU-486 variants.
The J'naii are a species that lacks gender completely. Long ago in their history they did have gender but have evolved out of it into a neuter status. They certainly have friendship and love. They reproduce by both parties "inseminating" their gametes into a fibrous husk. (Perhaps this evolved from something like a monotreme ?) Soren, the J'naii who describes this (to the human Riker) says that compared to the human reproductive method the J'naii mathod is "much less painful and much safer", presumably comparing the experience of the J'naii parent to that of the human woman, but perhaps also saying that the development and emergence of the infant from husk is less painful and safer for that infant. It sounds like the insemination of the husk by two people (thus joining two half genomes, thus creating genetic diversity) is a deliberate act as it is "preceded by much ritual" which Soren describes as "very pleasurable" to both.. Probably husk insemination can't happen accidentally. It's not said whether the husk requires any kind of incubation or care while the embryo devlops within. Presumably once the infant emerges from the husk, one or more persons has to provide whatever rearing is required (they are not born adult, and school is mentioned). It's not clear if the two bio-parents are the ones to do the rearing, but without gender there would be no reason to assign the bulk of rearing to one of the two while leaving the other to do only a little of it. Nor is there any mention of lactation by one or both. (They may not be mammals at all. Indeed the J'naii appear to have little or no breasts, but perhaps like most Terran mammals (other than human or dairy cows) the breasts remain very small until lactation is needed and is on-going.)
Of course there are some abnormal individuals, "perverts", who have feelings of being either male or female. Soren reveals that she is one who has known from early in life that she is female. And she's very attracted to Riker and he to her. They seem headed towards coupledom.
The culture is very rejecting of such persons and has devloped a therapy that it says can convert them. Soren is discovered and taken for a hearing to be committed to therapy. She gives a spirited defense of herself and other gendered J'naii as harmless persons who should not be persecuted. "I'm tired of lies. I was born this way. I've had these longings all my life. I don't want to be "cured". What we need is understanding, not to be scorned and attacked We have not injured you. We talk together, laugh, complain about work, worry about the future, cry with each other. All the loving things that you do, we do. What right do you have to punish us, change us, to dictate how people love each other". (Does any of this sound familiar ? It should !). Riker offers to remove her from the planet and the J'naii society so she will not be a problem for them. The hearing judge says that their society takes responsibility for the welfare of their people, therefore they cure those afflicted with gender impulses and those people want to be cured and are much happier afterwards.
Riker beams down that night to rescue Soren. But now here is the kicker : the therapy actually has worked. The former she is now a contented gender-free normal person, happy to be normal, unwilling to be restored to the former condition of being gendered.
It's not likely that humans will become physically genderless, genderless in the sense of no longer biologically morphologicall male and female. That would require a change of biology that would go outside our evolution as mammals. But , as Ursula LeGuin (and many Feminist writers) points out, it is possible for humans to become free of gender roles, thus psychologically genderless or androgynous.. Some human cultures create hugely separate gender roles for men and women, other cultures create far less separate roles. Some punish those who depart from their assigned role savagely, others more mildly. As of 2018, in the US a lot of aspects of gender role have diminished compared to other periods of history and some other human cultures. But gender role assignment is still used as an insturment of power (conferring power on males) and a limitation of personal freedom (of females). We are not free to discover and exercise our individual talents. We are still judged not on our characters but on our appearance of being male or female and on our conformity to gender roles. But it is a not impossible dream that someday we will be judged on our characters and abilities, not on the superficialities of race, sex, etc.
Alien Nation first appeared as a movie in 1988, then as a TV series starting the next year., running from Sept 1989 to May 1990. (I adored this series and wish it had continued.) There followed a couple of TV movies and at least 8 novels..
A space ship has crashed in the Mojave Desert, carrying a cargo of slaves (plus a few "Overseers"). The ship has crashed because of a revolt by the slaves. . These self-freed slaves are the Tenctonese, now named "Newcomers" , a large headed, bald species that is quite a bit smarter on average than are humans. Naturally they will have a hard time fitting in on Earth and will be resented by many, persecuted by some. (There will be a group, "the Purists" , who are similar to KKK but without the sheets. They want to exterminate the Newcomers.) The Newcomers are quarrantined for a while, then released. They are given Terran sounding names by the intake personel, who like intake personel at Ellis Island, sometimes have a bit of fun with the naming process. Our Tenctonese protagonist , George Francisco, becomes a detective, partnered with Terran Matt Sikes. So the series is part cop-buddy stories and part stories of species and cultural differences.
What is remarkable and delightful about this species' mode of reproduction is that it requires 3 participants and requires deliberate choice. The ordinary male and female cannot concieve without the aid of a special and relatively uncommon type of male (the "binam") who provides a fluid that neutralizes the spermicidal properties of the female tract and/or activates the male's sperm. . These special males and the service they provide are honored. The ordiary male and the female each provide the genetic material, but without participation of the special male, intercourse between ordinary males and females is enjoyable but sterile. So no accidental pregnancy is possible and pregnancy by rape would be less easy to create than it is for Terran humans.. The female performs the first portion of pregnancy and then delivers a "pod" (which looks like a coconut) which the male must receive into his pouch for the remainder of gestation. (This sounds like this species evolved from something like a Marsupial.). So both parts of the couple are gestational and genetic parents though the binam is not a genetic contributor nor a gestator.. We don't really learn much about whether child-rearing duties are shared, though some of the scenes seem to imply that the female does most of it.
(This is one of my all time favorite Star Trek episodes. One of a lot of people's favorites , as it always makes the Top Ten lists, not far behind "Trouble with Tribbles")
As the episode begins, our beloved Mr Spock is about to enter his species' once every seven years "pon farr", the time when Vulcans must return to the home planet to mate with their pre-contracted pre-bonded mate. This bonding, "more than an engagement, less than a marriage", takes place between Vulcans while they are still children, arranged (no doubt quite logically) by the parents of both. On entering into pon farr, the male Vulcan loses his cool logic and becomes potentially quite violent. If unable to mate, he will soon die. Even a Vulcan x Human hybrid like Spock is subject to this heptenial madness. (Perhaps it is a genetically dominent trait ?.) Judging from the very logical behavior of Spock's designated mate, T'Pring, it looks like female Vulcans are not subject to madness during pon farr though presumably they become fertile at this time ( only at this time ?).
We don't know what the conception rate is for Vulcan sex during pon farr. It might be quite high or it might be low. Nor are we told if any form of contraception is available, presumably methods used by the female rather than the emotionally disturbed irrational male. Since Vulcans are very long lived, around 200 years (age of sexual maturity probably being fairly late, as this seems to be Spock's first time and he's about 70 years younger than his father whom we meet in another episode.), if an adult conceived every 7 years and bore a surviving child, the result would be high rate of population growth and very soon would result in gross over-population. Yet the planetary population seems to be rather low density, as would be wise on a planet that seems to be largely desert. (Note : I've seen no scenes of agriculture on Vulcan and Vulcans are all vegetarian so they really would need adequate food plant production.) Surely the super logical Vulcans would have found a way to limit their birth rate and keep their population well under planetary carrying capacity.
By the way we don't know if Romulans have a similar reproductive cycle. We do know that Romulans and Vulcans share ancestry not terribly long ago, so it's possible that pon farr dates back before that split. Alternatively pon farr may have arisen as a side effect of the Vulcan practice of supressing emotion all the rest of the time, like a volcano bottled up and then errupting periodically. We don't know if the two species are inter-fertile, though we do know that mutual attraction is possible. In the episode "The Enterprise Incident" during the successful attempt to steal a cloaking device from a Romulan ship, there's obvious mutual attraction and courting between Spock and the beautiful Romulan Commander (name not given) and an implied off-screen consumation (even though Spock is not in pon farr !)
(It's also rather surprising how many viable species hybrids we meet through the various Star Trek series. Vulcan x Human, Klingon x Human, Cardassian x Bajoran. Notably missing are Vulcan x Romulan, the cross most likely to be viable and fertile, unless Spock and the Romulan Commander have an offspring..)
(Another tangential note : there are at least 4 classic Trek episodes in which Spock might have sired a child : "All Our Yesterdays", "City On The Edge of Forever", and "This Side of Paradise". In the first 2, Spock has been sent backwards in time to a time before Vulcans were so utterly logical and self-controlled. In Paradise, under the influence of the happyness spores, Spock is able to be head-over-heels in love with the human Leila Kalomi, who he knows from some years ago and who has long been in love with him. Of course it's possible that Spock is not fertile, though there's a Star Trek novel "Yesterday's Son" which tells of the son he sired in "All Our Yesterdays" Fourthly, the incident with the Romulan Commander described above.)
Would it be possible to lengthen the human reproductive cycle so that conception is possible only at very long intervals ? Some human cultures have done culturally that by making sex taboo (forbidden) during pregnancy and during lactation, and without safe and adequate alternative infant food lactation can continue for 4 years. That would mean that the minimum interval would be nearly 5 years. We don't know how often the taboo is dishonored.
For other means of lengthening the interval between fertile periods see my remarks under "Even the Queen". Even now we are seeing marketing of hormonal birth control pills that replace the one month cycle with a three month cycle. Hormonal implants can inhibit conception for several years.
Because of an accident during a mission, the Terran human woman Keiko O'Brian , wife of human Miles O'Brian, is unable to continue to carry her pregnancy. The fetus is sent by transporter beam into the womb of Kira Nerise, a Bajoran woman. Bajorans are a different humanoid species from Terran humans. No information is given as to how Kira Nerise's uterus is made ready to accept a fetus of a different species or how placental blood circulation is joined to her circulation. (No idea how it's possible ; it seems unlikely, but then the various human x other species hybrids on Star Trek , starting with the beloved Spock, also seem unlikely.) Kira will be successful in carrying the fetus to a healthy birth. She spends most of this period living with the O'Brians who are tremendously grateful to her for this service. They were already friends and now they are family.
The idea of easily and safely transferring a fetus from the uterus of one person into the uterus of another and having development proceed normally without injury to either of the women or to the fetus is the remarkable phenomenon. If this were possible it would be the ultimate answer to the Abortion Wars. Those women who declare themselves "Pro-Life" could now put their own body on the line to "save" the fetus unwanted by the woman who conceived it. It would be time to "put up or shut up". Of course this is only a real solution if the recipient of the fetus would then have to raise it to adulthood after it is born. Would such a woman's self-declared "Pro-Life" mate (presumably but not necessarily male) be likewise committed to raising this "saved" fetus to human adulthood ? (Don't hold your breath waiting for answer.)
The odds are that this will never be possible. It's certainly not possible now in 2018. We could however loudly demand that anyone declaring themselves "Pro-Life" prove their sincerity by enrolling in the Volunteer Adoption Corps, in which every enrollee is committed to adopting by lottery the very next newborn relinquished into a Safe Haven or other relinquishment mode. (The lottery assignment of children might also include those children currently languishing in the Child Protection services and foster homes. After all these no-longer-infant persons are every bit as much human persons as is the unborn fetus, indeed much more so than the first trimester fetus.)
A group of women isolated on an island (a large island) find that they are able to reproduce parthenogenically. They basically do so just by wanting wanting wanting very intensely. The life of Herland is peaceful and creative.
After a number of generations, the population has grown to threaten the ability of the island to sustain so large a number. The women realize that birth rate must be limited. They are able to limit themselves to one child per woman (or less) by self-controlled not-wanting , not-wanting, not-wanting, again very intensely.
(Charlotte Perkins Gilman was not a biologist. Her interests were economy and feminsim. So she is really writing about what life would be like without male domination. (Her book Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898) is very much worth reading. Some of the ideas are still relevant today.)
Then a plane with 3 men crashes on the island. The story begins. The bulk of the novel is the contrast between the American society from which the men come versus the island women only society. (The novel was published in 1915, so it's the American society of that era that is described.)
Is reproduction without men possible ? Certainly it would be if there were sperm banks and just a few men kept on stud farms to provide material (the rest having been sex-selective aborted after sex determination by ultrasound or having been smothered or "exposed" at birth or having been gelded early in life.) Could the ova of one woman be fertilized by it's own polar body (bad idea genetically) or by nucleus extracted from ova of another woman ? maybe that could be possible, but right now we don't know how to do it. Don't hold your breath , but the technique might grow out of research into cloning, where a full diploid nucleus is transferred into an ovum whose haploid nucleus has been removed. .
On the planet Whileaway (colonized by humans) , some years (centuries) ago, a plague killed all the men. Fortunately one of the surviving women was a genius biologist who figured out how to "merge ova" to result in a viable embryo, which would of course be female. An all female society has developed, women being capable as a population of doing everything that needs to be done. Women commonly pair up as mates.
In the short story "When It Changed" the crux is that men have arrived via interstellar travel from Earth. They think it would be wonderful to restore men to Whileaway. The viewpoint woman (and probably almost all women on the planet) is appalled. She does not want her culture destroyed. And she doesn't really believe the invading men when they say that sexual equality has been restored on Earth.
This story won a number of awards.
The novel "The Female Man" contrasts the world of Whileaway with 3 other alternate worlds (one of them our world), worlds that do contain men and in which women are not nearly as well off as they are on Whileaway. . It's very much a 2nd Wave Feminist novel.
Could men be eliminated ? Quite easily and it wouldn't take a plague to do it. (A plague that killed only men seems a bit unlikely anyway.) In many "undeveloped" countries where most births are home births attended by midwife and/or female friends or relatives of the pregnant woman, it would be easy enough to ensure that most male infants did not survive. Smother at birth or simply don't feed them, which is the same elimination process so commonly applied to girl infants in some cultures. (In those countries where inter-tribal genocide is rampant, accompanied by rape of the other tribe's women, a refusal of women to allow male children, especially rape-sired male children , to survive would make a lot of sense. It would also improve food supplies for women and girls, who are the people who do most of the work of food production in these cultures.) In "advanced" countries where most births are not private home events, the reduction of elimination of males could be accomplished more efficiently by use of ultrasound to identify sex and then abort male fetuses, ie exactly as is so often done to selectively eliminate female fetuses in countries where sons are strongly demanded. Alternatively consider (as I describe above in discussion of Brave New World) the use of testosterone blockers at the critical time in very early pregnancy to prevent an XY embryo from shifting its undifferentiated sex bits from the female destiny to male development, resulting in a female "freemartin" equivalent rather than a normal male.
In one of the very early episodes of Star Trek Enterprise, a series that takes place earlier in history than the original Star Trek series , the ship's engineer Trip is called on to assist a vessel of aliens, the Xyrillians, to repair a problem with their ship's engines. He is sucessful. But after returning to the Enterprise, Trip discovers that he is pregnant. He has become pregnant inexplicably by sharing a telepath-inducing mechanism with one of the female Xyrillians, Ah'len. It's not at all clear how this could result in pregnancy,especially cross-species. In normal Xyrillian reproduction, the male incubates the fetus in a chest pouch, the male simply being host to a fetus whose genetic material comes solely from the female, however up to a stage of development the fetus can be transferred to another host. Fortunately for Trip , the fetus he is carrying can still be transferred to another host, thus he gains the same relief as a woman who is safely aborted, while the fetus will presumably be carried to term by the Xyrillian male host.
(Are the Xyrillians something like our Terran seahorses ? The male seahorse carries the embryos, later infants, in his prouch until they are ready to be independant. Or are they something like our Marsupials ? In any case, since the genetic material comes only from the female, this is a form of cloning or parthenogenesis. This is a very unfavorable situation for further evolution. )
Could it be possible for human males to receive an early embryo (or later fetus) and gestate it to term and live birth ? Very difficult to see how this could be done. If we had evolved from Marsupials, probably the male's pouch could be activated by hormone treatments, just as placental mammalian males can be hormonally induced to lactate. If we'd evolved from Monotremes, of course either male or female could incubate eggs and raise young.
In one of the earliest of the Star Trek Next Generation episodes, the crew becomes infected with a contageous molecule that causes them to behave much as if they were drunk, "three sheets to the wind" but still consicous. Some of the crew become quite amorous or lecherous. Security Chief Natasha Yar becomes amorous and looking for a partner. She picks the android Data, asking him "you are fully functional I presume" and he replies "fully functional and programed for a wide variety of pleasuring" The pleasuring occurs off-stage of course. Afterwards 'Tasha informs Data "this never happened" and being an android he is quite capable of keeping the secret, possibly even erasing the memory of the event.
Obviously copulations with an android could not result in pregnancy.
Could we develop androids which would be satisfying sex partners or surrogates ? Depending on what you require of such an android, at the lowest level of capability, we already have those. For women, dildos have existed for thousands of years. (See for example the mention of these as an ordinary tool in Aristophanes' "Lysistrata", a play available in several translations and well worth reading or attending performance thereof..) So just attach a dildo to a manikin or dummy and climb aboard ladies. (This would especially appeal to horsewomen.). That's a rather passive partner, but there's something to be said for the woman being totally in control. For males there are various latex recepticles and inflatable dolls. Not being male, I cannot express a knowledgeable opinion. I can only observe that some men do seem to prefer women who are "airheads" and an inflatable doll would certainly satisfy that criterion.
Data of course represents a far far higher level of performance. For one thing he is intelligent and responsive to others. He's far beyond the simple demand of passing the Turing Test (a test not all humans can pass). In a much later episode Data also develops a romantic courtship program for the benefit of one of his crewmates.
Not included : The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale doesn't really fit my "mission statement" of discussing S F in which some aspect of gender (culture , biology, technology) makes accidental or unwanted pregnancy highly unlikely. In the brutally dystopian culture of Gilead, a substantial portion of pregnancies and births are the result of a system of sexual slavery, legalized and culturally mandated rape. Calling it "concubinage" may sound better than "slavery" but the latter is the reality. The choice between accepting the role of "handmaid" versus being sent to "the Colonies" to clean up radioactive waste versus being executed by hanging is really not much of a choice.
It's not a wonderful life for most men either. Until and unless they attain sufficient status to be assigned a wife and the greater elitie status to be assigned a handmaid, the men spend their younger years celibate. Nor do they have the option of consorting with one another : that gets them hanged as "Gender Traitors".
Anyway this novel "is not Science Fiction" says author Atwood because "it has no space ships".
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You can find information on all of these authors and all of these books on Wikepedia. Likewise you can find descriptions of the TV episodes. I will only give selected references.