Why sci-fi has an issue depicting reproductive health (and what to do about it)

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May 4, 2017, 12:35 PM EDT (Updated)

Science fiction, by its very nature, is about endless possibility. From the exploration and settlement of new worlds to the development of revolutionary and life-changing technologies, the sci-fi genre has always been about pushing boundaries and redefining our notions of society. Through mediums like television, books, movies and games, the popularity of science fiction has thrived and endured over the years. It's why stories about aliens, Jedi, space pilots and androids continue to engage us.

That being said, it's only in recent memory that the voices behind the stories are growing to be as diverse as the characters they write. Some of the most successful franchises in sci-fi history were originally concocted by brilliant minds like George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry, but what's interesting to note is which specific aspects of their futuristic societies are given generous attention. The technology found within Star Wars and Star Trek makes it possible to replace missing appendages (Luke Skywalker's hand, for example) or eliminate the existence of world hunger (see: food replicators), but when it comes to issues of reproductive and women's health, many storylines that include those elements are frequently shrouded in mystery.

In Star Wars, pregnancy and childbirth doesn't really get a significant mention until the later prequel trilogy -- and even then, it isn't adequately represented. In Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Shmi Skywalker explains the mysterious circumstances of her son Anakin's conception to Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn as little more than miraculous: "There was no father. I carried him, I raised him. I can't explain what happened." This reveal of immaculate conception would seem to be in line with the oft-referred interpretation of Anakin Skywalker as a Christ-like figure, especially given that his character is intended to fulfill an ancient Jedi prophecy by bringing balance to the Force. Therefore, the audience is probably meant to deduce that Anakin was literally born of the Force, that somehow Shmi was impregnated by the midichlorians that are a sign of Force-sensitivity in a being. However, Anakin's origin story is limited to one or two lines of backstory, and when it comes to his own offspring the handling of their storyline is even less satisfactory.

As writer Sarah Jeong outlines in her extensive piece for Motherboard, considering the expert prenatal care Padme Amidala would have likely received on the advanced world of Coruscant, the fact that she's unaware she's pregnant with twins until their literal birth doesn't really add up. Episode III - Revenge of the Sith partly revolves around Anakin's vision of Padme's impending death during childbirth -- and the dark path he takes to keep it from happening. While the film itself is a mild retcon of Return of the Jedi -- Leia's one memory of her mother is called into question, given that she was just minutes old when Padme died -- the more mind-boggling aspect is how Padme could have died in the first place given the advanced technologies of the universe. Fans have often speculated that Emperor Palpatine may have had an indirect hand in Padme's death, but that could also be viewed as a means of trying to apply logic to her strange and largely unexplained demise.

Star Trek has also been a mixed bag when it comes to portraying reproductive health. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Season 2 episode "The Child" received considerable criticism over its handling of a pregnancy plot. In the episode, ship's counselor Deanna Troi is unwillingly impregnated by a mysterious light -- and later gives birth to a rapidly aging child, who is revealed to be a humanoid manifestation of the being itself. Troi's pregnancy is initially treated as little more than a problem to be solved in a scene where a table full of male officers discuss what is to be done about the situation. Later, when Troi gives birth, the moment is depicted as an out-of-body experience, with none of the normally felt pains of labor. Actress Marina Sirtis, who played Troi, has repeatedly voiced her own personal dissatisfaction with the storyline, and it is widely regarded as one of the worst episodes of TNG. The show did a much better job later on when it came to the pregnancy of Keiko O'Brien, who is forced to have her baby under stressful circumstances when some of the crew become trapped in the Enterprise's lounge.

By the time Star Trek: Deep Space Nine came around, its significant pregnancy plot was handled considerably better. When Keiko O'Brien is badly hurt in a runabout accident during her second pregnancy, Kira Nerys becomes the surrogate for her baby. The storyline was originally conceived as an explanation for actress Nana Visitor's real-life pregnancy but later led to some very positive and amusing side plots between Kira, Keiko and Keiko's husband, Miles O'Brien. While Kira also experiences a somewhat pain-free labor, the in-universe reasoning for this is that in her Bajoran species, women are unable to give birth until they are completely relaxed.

This rule doesn't seem to apply to all species across the board, however; on Star Trek: Voyager, half-Klingon/half-human B'Elanna Torres definitely experiences her fair share of labor pains -- as does human Winona Kirk, who gives birth to James Tiberius in a brief establishing scene at the beginning of the 2009 Star Trek movie.

It does seem, however, that time is the best teacher in terms of depicting the ways in which women of all species get pregnant -- and have babies -- on-screen. In the 2004 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, the half-human, half-Cylon baby Hera is both conceived and birthed in a relatively traditional manner. However, mother Sharon's pregnancy doesn't transpire without some logical risks, given that she's the first Cylon to even become pregnant -- let alone have a child. (Another Cylon, Number Six, had a pregnancy which was written away with a miscarriage later in the series.)

Other, more recent sci-fi adaptations offer a more unconventional portrayal of families; in The Expanse, James Holden is the product of eight parents as part of a genetic collective, since people are prohibited from having large families due to overpopulation -- though one elected mother carries him to term.

As progressive as these societies are purported to be -- given the complex surgical procedures performed on screen in nearly every installment -- it only makes sense that the universe would have evolved to the point of advanced healthcare for all aspects of life. At its root, this concept seems like an obvious move, but the handwaving or altogether absence of many storylines related to reproductive health -- like pregnancy, childbirth, birth control or even abortion -- is an equally obvious indicator of who's telling the story.

While certain sci-fi franchises haven't always had the best track record in depicting reproductive issues faced by their female characters, there are ways to improve that -- getting more women in the writers' room, for example. As the old saying goes, writers are inclined to "write what they know", so including more of the female perspective would be an easy means of expanding a futuristic world even further. We've already seen this on the page thanks to many female science-fiction authors - like Anne McCaffrey, or Octavia Butler - but the next step is to get it on the screen. Given the ever-changing face of science fiction, however, the possibility of more portrayals of all aspects of reproduction continues to be in line with the genre itself -- it's merely out there waiting to be discovered.

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