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This article contains references to abortion, eugenics, pregnancy, forced birth, violations of personal autonomy, dystopia, and horror.

Abortion and Science Fiction

Dystopian Dreams: How Feminist Science Fiction Predicted the Future,” writes Naomi Alderman, in a 2017 Guardian article about reproductive rights.[1] A BBC article a year later: “Why The Handmaid’s Tale Is So Relevant Today,” with the author calling the novel “prescient.”[2] The same year, an Atlantic article about “The Remarkable Rise of the Feminist Dystopia” that connects science fiction to the curtailing of abortion access.[3] Four years later, a Slate article from Annalee Newitz on feminist dystopias is titled “My 2019 Sci-Fi Novel Was About a U.S. Where Abortion Is Illegal in 2022. But I Didn’t Predict the Future.”[4] As the pace of abortion restrictions has accelerated over the last ten years, writers and critics have increasingly cast science fiction as the genre par excellence for predicting and responding to reproductive coercion. This coverage of science fiction reached its apotheosis in June 2022 when the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, with websites publishing listicles like “6 Books Beyond 'The Handmaid’s Tale' That Explore the Loss of Reproductive Rights” and “We Will Not Bow, nor Be Silenced: 6 Dystopias About Reproductive Rights.”[5]

octavia butler's "bloodchild" book cover (the shape of a fetus or newborn in a cage)Given SF’s reputation as the gold standard for portrayals of reproductive rights, it is surprising to realize that science fiction as a genre contains almost no abortions at all. Yes, there are metaphors for abortion (Alien); yes, there are a plethora of novels that explore abortion bans (Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline); yes, there are dozens of works exploring forced birth (Octavia Butler, Dawn). But the act of abortion itself? It’s nearly nonexistent. If politicians decided to censor the portrayal of abortion in the media, science fiction would emerge nearly untouched. 

Fair enough, some might argue, but abortion does appear in SF: it just does so through analogy. In the article “The Science Fiction of Roe v. Wade,” Palmer Rampell makes this very claim: “because speculative analogies are their stock in trade, science fiction authors have been able to directly grapple with the legal and cultural analogies that establish personhood, more so than their counterparts in lyric poetry, visual culture, and literary fiction.”[6] Rampell’s examples include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Victor Frankenstein “aborts” the female monster before her birth) and Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (Gan threatens to die rather than have T’Gatoi’s children); other famous analogies for abortion could include the Alien films, and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To …, in which a woman kills her fellow survivors rather than be impregnated against her will.[7] 

But isn’t it bizarre that abortion only shows up in science fiction through analogy? There are analogies for pregnancy in science fiction, but there are also pregnant people. There are analogies for climate change in science fiction, but there is also climate change (the list goes on). When it comes to abortion, on the other hand, there are just analogies. Even pro-life critics have picked up on this contradiction, with anti-abortion scholar Jeff Koloze remarking, “I find it curious that abortion is not explicitly mentioned, even when feminist authors' works are discussed … Many other feminist writers (such as Ursula Le Guin, Joan Slonczewski and Marge Piercy) have found in science fiction itself a place to explore their positions, but abortion apparently is not something worthy enough to be indexed … the feminist science fiction being published in the 1970s was informed in particular by contemporary political debates about women’s rights … if this is true, then abortion is not one of those issues.”[8] 

There are many good reasons that individual works of science fiction don’t depict abortion, of course. But given that SF is portrayed as the standout genre on reproductive rights, it’s worth looking at how, exactly, science fiction treats abortion. Does science fiction, as Rampell argues, “directly grapple” with the issue of abortion in ways other genres can’t? Or is there perhaps a reason that when Ursula Le Guin, one of science fiction’s most famous feminist authors, wrote a short story about abortion, she wrote it as a work of literary realism (1992’s “Standing Ground”)?[9] 

Where Not to Find Abortion in Science Fiction 

cover for Annalee Newitz’s "The Future of Another Timeline"; the cover features an image of a flower with a clock inside of itScience fiction owes its stellar reputation on reproductive rights to one specific subgenre: the feminist dystopia. Exemplified by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), alongside other works like Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89), Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), and Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke (2011), the feminist dystopia usually sees women pushed into reproductive slavery, one where their primary purpose is to bear children. Often characterized as “prophetic” during increasing abortion bans, they are science fiction’s clearest engagement with abortion: by portraying the dystopian consequences of people losing control over their reproductive choices, they make abortion a central feature of the narrative. 

Even in these dystopias, abortion is present only in its absence. Sometimes abortion is explicitly banned, as in Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline (2019); other times the reader simply infers its nonexistence, as in The Handmaid’s Tale.

On the flip side, many feminist works of science fiction depict societies where an unwanted pregnancy is simply impossible. In Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), the twenty-second-century community of Mattapoisett discards biological reproduction in favor of in-vitro fertilization and ectogenesis (the growth of a fetus outside the womb). In the Betan colony of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, everyone uses contraceptive implants until they are ready to be parents, after which pregnancy takes place in “uterine replicators” that raise the embryos until birth.[10] The utopian ideal is one where people control their reproduction so totally that abortion is unnecessary. This state of affairs means that abortion exists in neither dystopian nor utopian futures: either it is banned, or it is no longer needed. 

Ironically, even anti-abortion science fiction does not include abortion. In Philip K. Dick’s most explicitly anti-abortion piece, “The Pre-Persons” 1974), Congress passes a law where children under twelve can be brought to an “abortion truck” and euthanized. Other works of SF take up Dick’s idea that abortion could move outside the confines of pregnancy: in the world of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series (2007-15), abortion is illegal, but parents can have their teenage children “unwound” between the ages of 13 and 18. But crucially, neither Shusterman nor Dick includes abortion in their works. Readers all understand that child murder stands in for abortion, but there are still no abortions. Indeed, although much of Philip K. Dick’s literary oeuvre is marked by his anti-choice politics, from We Can Build You (1972) (written a few months after Dick’s wife Anne had an abortion) to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), it is still always through analogy.[11]

Biology Is Destiny: Abortion and Extinction

The reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004) is one of the few works of science fiction that actually includes an abortion. In Battlestar Galactica (BSG), after the robotic Cylons destroy most of humanity, a mixed civilian-and-military fleet attempts to flee and find safe refuge. In the season two episode “The Captain’s Hand,” a pregnant teenager’s decision to terminate her pregnancy results in a fleetwide debate over abortion. Even in the future, abortion remains a hot-button electoral issue: when Roslin reluctantly criminalizes abortion, her vice president betrays her, entering the presidential election as the pro-choice candidate. Broadcast in 2006, Bush-era politics permeate the episode. The hyper-religious faction of the fleet threatens to withdraw support from Laura Roslin’s presidential campaign if she does not ban abortion; meanwhile, Roslin uses classic 2000s political speech when she says she has “fought for a woman’s right to control her own body [her] entire career.”[12] 

Yet it is the calculus of survival, not politics, that persuades the president to ban abortion. Nodding to a whiteboard that displays the total population of the human race (49,584), the commander of the military fleet, William Adama, says to the President: “the fact is, that number doesn’t go up very often”, then reminds Roslin of her own speech where she claimed that for humans to survive “we need to start making babies.”[13] Pro-life writers saw this episode as a vindication. For one such blogger: “the writers of the show seem to be quite liberal, but they’re telling a story that regularly forces them into having to take conservative positions on the show, because the conservative positions are the ones that are required for the survival of mankind.”[14] Abortion is a luxury of an advanced civilization, one that must be abandoned by the necessities of survival. 

a poster for battlestar galactica with multiple members of the cast, including six, a Cylon woman with glowing red eyesFor all BSG was praised as a departure from earlier science fiction, it echoes other SF in its portrayal of abortion as a problem of extinction. Take Darkover Landfall (1972), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s famous opener to her omnibus Darkover series. In the novel, an interstellar starship filled with colonists crash lands on an uncharted planet and loses contact with Earth. Resources—including women—are then marshaled toward survival. When Camilla Del Rey, the ship’s first officer, seeks an abortion, the medical officer refuses, explaining that every pregnancy is necessary to the survival of the colony: “the viable level for this colony to survive means we’ve got to bring our numbers up to about four hundred before the oldest women start losing their fertility. It’s going to be touch and go … any woman who refuses to have as many children as she can physically manage, is going to be awfully damned unpopular.”[15] Like the women in BSG, Camilla’s uterus is press-ganged into service for the survival of a colony: her fertility is a matter of population control. 

Darkover Landfall, which was published a year before Roe v. Wade, provoked outrage in segments of the science fiction community. Feminist fanzines like The Witch and the Chameleon filled up with letters and reviews from writers like Vonda McIntyre, Joanna Russ (who ended up writing an entire novel as a response to Darkover Landfall), and Marion Zimmer Bradley herself.[16] Writing about the furor later, Bradley stated that “some outraged feminists objected to the stand I took in the book, that the survival of the human race on Darkover could, and should, be allowed to supersede the personal convenience of any single woman in the group … to those who refuse to accept the tenet that "Biology is Destiny," I have begun to ask them to show me a vegetarian lion or tiger before they debate the issue further.”[17] Although Bradley was not herself pro-life, her language echoes that of the pro-life BSG blogger: “conservative positions are the ones that are required for the survival of mankind.” This trope is reminiscent of the conservative position that everyone would gladly resort to torture if a terrorist attack was imminent: civil rights (and apparently abortion) are a luxury abandoned at the first opportunity. 

This kind of grim realism, in which “good” people make “difficult” decisions in situations of extreme survival won both Battlestar Galactica and Darkover Landfall a great deal of praise. Yet is banning abortion in these works really “realistic”? Take the line Commander Adama quotes to Roslin. When Roslin first brings up baby-making, in the miniseries that served as a backdoor pilot to BSG, the line is longer: “If we are even going to survive as a species, then we need to get the hell out of here and we need to start having babies” (my emphasis).[18] Roslin’s argument is not about making babies, but about war: she wants Adama to stop fighting the Cylons, to cut and run before the population is utterly decimated. Indeed, it’s laughable that abortion constitutes any kind of threat to humanity: are we really supposed to see one woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy as civilization-ending when Cylon attacks take out dozens to hundreds of people every episode? Rather than biological realism, these scenarios seem like an excuse for writers to indulge in misogyny under a veneer of “realistic” legitimacy. 

Despite their paper-thin justifications, BSG and Darkover Landfall give a clear picture of why science fiction so rarely portrays abortion. In SF, the future routes through the child: abortion leads to extinction. In The Child To Come, Rebekah Sheldon looks at why the child so often symbolizes the future in twentieth-century narratives, arguing that in apocalyptic times “the child stands in the place of the species and coordinates its transit into the future.”[19] Abortion harms the coming civilization by depriving them of necessary members: the person seeking a termination is always fighting the future. Battlestar Galactica makes this link between abortion and extinction explicit on a small scale. When the Cylon Boomer is pregnant with the first human/Cylon hybrid, President Roslin orders the pregnancy terminated. Her vice president rescinds her command when he discovers the fetus’s blood can cure Roslin’s cancer: if Roslin had successfully terminated Sharon’s pregnancy, she would have destroyed her own survival. If children—and childbirth—symbolize the future and the survival of humanity, then abortion destroys both the individual and the species. We see this trend in feminist dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale, where the government regulates pregnancy in part because so many women have become infertile as a result of environmental toxins. But while dystopias portray this state of affairs as—well, dystopian—in much science fiction, banning of abortion because of the potential of extinction is just a matter of course. 

poster for the film "Prometheus" with a large, alien head hovering over a humanoid figurePrometheus (2012)—perhaps the best portrayal of abortion in all of English-language science fiction—also draws a link between abortion and extinction. In this fifth installment of the Alien franchise, the ship’s android, David, impregnates archeologist Elizabeth Shaw with an alien embryo. She begs for an abortion, only to have David ignore her, then sedate her. Managing to escape, Shaw commanders an advanced surgery pod, and uses it to give herself an emergency cesarean, extracting the alien from her uterus. It’s a relatively positive portrayal of abortion, complete with gaslighting and body horror (in a commentary on medical bias, the pod initially cannot give Shaw a cesarean because it is calibrated towards male anatomy). At the same time, Shaw’s abortion is positive precisely because she’s trying to kill an alien: if she gave birth to that extraterrestrial fetus on Earth, it could cause an extinction-level event. 

The future requires childbirth, but it must be the birth of the right kind of children. As Rebekah Sheldon points out, the link between the child and the future is one forged out of nineteenth-century eugenics. The child carries “specific biological inheritance,” a nexus point for “history, race, and the nation”.[20] That is why Laura Roslin wanted to abort Sharon’s Cylon/human fetus: to prevent a human-Cylon hybrid. It is also why in the Vorkosigan series, Piotr Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s father-in-law, wants her to abort her child after the fetus is exposed to a teratogen in the womb. “This thing, if it lived, would be Count Vorkosigan someday. We cannot afford to have a deformed Count Vorkosigan … we’ve never been mutants,” Piotr tells Cordelia.[21] Cordelia's and Sharon’s refusal to terminate their pregnancies here signals a rejection of eugenics, a refusal to define the human race narrowly. 

At the same time, the continued link between abortion and extinction means that abortion is always tied to broader civilization-level, species-level concerns. There are no casual abortions in science fiction, no characters terminating pregnancies because it’s not the right time for children. A fetus is never just a fetus; a pregnant person is never just a person: they are always, in some way, deciding the future of an entire species. 

The lack of abortion in science fiction signals a failure to think about the future beyond the confines of heterosexual reproduction and the nuclear family. For a genre that should be concerned with the many, multitudinous, branching pathways of the future, it is a limited vision, one where the future must look like the past. As Sheldon puts it, “the child, then, is a kind of retronaut, a piece of the future lodged in and under the controlling influence of the present.”[22] Nowhere is this more evident than in Darkover Landfall, where the requirement to have children isn’t about species survival: if the colonists who crash land on the planet die out after a generation or two, humanity as a whole will continue on just fine back on earth. But the colonists—and Marion Zimmer Bradley, with her argument that ‘biology is destiny’—cannot conceive of a future on the planet that does not have people like them on it. And so they take control of people’s reproduction to ensure their own perpetuation, generation upon generation, an engine of forced birth guaranteeing that the future will resemble the present. 

Of course, not all science fiction about forced birth falls into this limited vision of the future. Octavia Butler’s entire corpus, with her protagonists forced to carry alien and hybrid children, is very clearly not about the repetition of the human race, but rather, as Donna Haraway argues, “the monstrous fear and hope that the child will not, after all, be like the parent.”[23] More generally, writers like Louise Erdrich and Nalo Hopkinson explore the tenuous link between the future and children of color: what does having a child mean when talking about Black and indigenous children, who are often alienated from the future by virtue of their race?[24] 

Abortion and Bookselling

cover of "the handmaid's tale" with the hoodie face of a woman You might be forgiven for wondering how bad other genres are, if science fiction remains the gold standard for responding to abortion bans. But science fiction isn’t even particularly good when compared to other books. Realistic and literary fiction has a long history of portraying abortions (including Le Guin’s own contribution); there’s even a subgenre of abortion novels from the ’50s and ’60s like Revolutionary Road. Although romance is deeply invested in childbirth and the nuclear family, there are probably more romance novels with abortions than there are in science fiction (Abigail Barnette, The Boss; Jackie Lau, Not Another Family Wedding; Annie Dyer, White Knight, among others). And yet romance and literary fiction rarely, if ever, get trotted out when we want to discuss literary responses to abortion bans. 

Part of science fiction’s unearned reputation comes not from the books but rather from aggressive marketing. Members of the science fiction community talked up SF during abortion bans as a way of making an argument for the genre’s value. Science fiction deals with serious issues (like abortion and forced reproduction), and thus it is a serious genre, worthy of serious consideration. This also explains the discourse around the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which showrunners wanted to sell as a commentary on politics rather than as a “mere” genre show. We see the same thing happening with science fiction and climate change: as Jeff VanderMeer points out in Esquire, “when the science fiction community did come around to embracing the term cli-fi, they generally did so to suggest that speculative fiction was better suited than other forms of fiction … for examining climate change.”[25] As with reproductive justice, defenders of science fiction argue that the genre is simply better than other media at dealing with major social and environmental catastrophes. It’s maybe a little disturbing to realize that defenders of science fiction so often use catastrophe as an excuse to plug books.

Mainstream coverage also loves casting science fiction as a form of prophecy (never mind that most science fiction isn’t written as predictive, and most science fiction never comes true). And mainstream coverage particularly loves to highlight grim prophecies: the ones involving abortion bans, forced births, oppressive governments, and women in pain. It’s not necessarily positive that science fiction’s calling cards are these dystopian imaginaries, ones where reproduction only exists for oppression. Do we want science fiction’s reputation as the best genre for the post-Dobbs landscape to come from the fact that it contains so few abortions? Feminist dystopias are wonderful, but surely the genre can offer more to this current crisis than a dark vision of gender oppression and coerced reproduction. But if you’re looking for alternatives, they’re hard to find.

If science fiction wants to be known for something else, we have to write it.

1. Naomi Alderman, “Dystopian Dreams: How Feminist Science Fiction Predicted the Future,” The Guardian, March 25, 2017. [return]
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, “Why 'The Handmaid’s Tale' Is So Relevant Today,” BBC, April 25, 2018. [return]
Sophie Gilbert, “The Remarkable Rise of the Feminist Dystopia,” The Atlantic, October 4, 2018. [return]
4. Annalee Newitz, “My 2019 Sci-Fi Novel Was About a U.S. Where Abortion is Illegal in 2022. But I Didn’t Predict the Future,” Slate, June 27, 2022. [return]
5. Brienne Walsh and Jacqui Palumbo, “6 Books Beyond ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ That Explore the Loss of Reproductive Rights,” CNN Style, August 3, 2022; Monique Snyman, “We Will Not Bow, nor Be Silenced: 6 Dystopias About Reproductive Rights,” Book Trib, July 1, 2022. [return]
Palmer Rampell, “The Science Fiction of Roe v. Wade,” English Literary History 85, no. 2 (Spring 2018): 224. [return]
7. Rampell, “Roe v. Wade,” 238-242. [return]
 Jeff Koloze, “Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Literature and the Right to Life Issues of Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia,” in Life and Learning XV: Proceedings of the Fifteenth University Faculty for Life Conference as Ave Maria Law School, edited by Joseph Koterski (Washington, DC: University Faculty for Life, 2005): 385. [return]
Ursula Le Guin, “Standing Ground” in Unlocking the Air: Stories (New York: Harpercollins, 1996), 125-141. [return]
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor (New York: Baen Books, 1996), 384-5. [return]
11. Rampell, “Roe v. Wade,” 228-237. [return]
12. Battlestar Galactica, “The Captain’s Hand,” Vudu Video, February 17, 2006. [return]
13. Battlestar Galactica, “Captain’s Hand.” [return]
14. Jimmy Atkins, “Abortion and Battlestar Galactica,” Jimmy Atkins, February 2006. [return]
15. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Darkover Landfall (New York: Daw Books, 1972), 113. [return]
16. Joanna Russ wrote We Who Are About To… in part as a response to Darkover Landfall. [return]
17. Marion Zimmer Bradley, “A Darkover Retrospective,” MZB Works, 1980. [return]
18. Battlestar Galactica, “Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries (Part 2),” Vudu Video, December 2003. [return]
19. Rebekah Sheldon, The Child to Come: Life after Human Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2016): vii. [return]
20. Sheldon, The Child to Come, 3. [return]
21. Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor, 392-3. [return]
22. Sheldon, The Child to Come, 36. [return]
23. Donna Haraway, “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies,” American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader, edited by Linda Kauffman, (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993): 223. [return]
24. James Bliss, “Hope against Hope: Queer Negativity, Black Feminist Theorizing, and Reproduction without Futurity,” Mosaic:
A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 48, no. 1 (2015): 83-98. [return]
25. Jeff VanderMeer, “Climate Fiction Won’t Save Us,” Esquire, April 19, 2023. [return]

Suzanne F. Boswell is a Brooklyn-based writer, researcher, and former abortion clinic escort. Her writing has appeared in Extrapolation, American Literature, and Xtra*, among others. Find them on twitter at @sf_boswell.
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