‘The Authority’s Anti-Breeding Campaign’: State-Imposed Infertility in British Reprodystopia

  • Fran BigmanEmail author


The biologically infertile woman is a familiar figure in British popular culture. Recent dystopian speculative fiction by British women writers, however, provides intriguing examples of a different kind of involuntarily childless female character: the woman banned from reproducing by a totalitarian regime. This chapter argues that in two such novels, Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007) and Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love (2010), the oppressiveness of the state is captured by the deprivation of the right to mother – not to father, or to parent. It then analyses the politics of transforming infertility into a symbol of state oppression by considering these novels in the context of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Just as it reads The Handmaid’s Tale as a call for reproductive choice in the 1980s, it reads Kavenna and Hall as protests against state-imposed infertility in a world in which in vitro fertilization (IVF) lotteries now actually exist.


Dystopia State Individual Social infertility Speculative fiction 

Research Resources

Reprodystopian Fiction

  1. Those interested in reproductive politics and dystopia may want to read more widely around Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (London, 1932), which is often insufficiently contextualized. A list of interwar ‘reprodystopias’ would have to include Charlotte Haldane’s Man’s World (London, 1926), in which women are forced by a male technocratic society either to become vocational mothers or to undergo sterilization; Diane Boswell’s Posterity (London, 1926), a critique of state professionalization of motherhood; and Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (London, 1937), set in a Nazi-controlled future in which women are mere breeders. More recent reprodystopias include Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (London, 2005), Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (London, 2007), Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love (London, 2010), and Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb (London, 2011).Google Scholar
  2. For more titles and additional background on these literary works, researchers may wish to consult Andreu Domingo’s article ‘Demodystopias: Prospects of Demographic Hell’, Population and Development Review, 34:4 (2008), 725–45, which contains an especially helpful overview of overpopulation narratives, while referencing a few underpopulation or infertility narratives, such as P.D. James’s The Children of Men (London, 1992). Some infertility narratives which he does not mention include Pat Frank’s Mr Adam (New York, 1946), the story of the last fertile man on earth, Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (London, 1964), and Richard Cowper’s The Twilight of Briareus (London, 1974). Lionel Shriver’s article ‘Population in Literature’, Population and Development Review, 29:2 (2003), 153–62, details three ‘terrors’: fear of population excess, fear of population decline, and fear of population professionals, illustrated by her own novel Game Control (London, 1994). Susan Merrill Squier was one of the first literature scholars to examine British biofuturism, and her study Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (New Brunswick, 1994) is a rich resource. Sarah Gamble’s article ‘Gender and Science in Charlotte Haldane’s “Man’s World”’, Journal of Gender Studies, 13:1 (2004), 3–13, also provides further background on Haldane’s novel.Google Scholar

Utopian and Dystopian Imaginings

  1. Reproduction became an obsession during the interwar period, a time when dystopia was in the ascendancy as a genre. A wealth of period thinking on the future of mankind can be found in the ‘To-day and To-morrow’ series published in London between 1924 and 1931, starting with J.B.S. Haldane’s essay Daedalus (1924) and continuing on to Lysistrata, or Woman’s Future and Future Women (1924) by Anthony Ludovici, who worried that artificial wombs would allow women to take over the world and keep only a few men around for breeding purposes; J.D. Bernal’s The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1929), which referred to ‘cyborgs’ before the term was coined; and Vera Brittain’s Halcyon, or The Future of Monogamy (1929). A collection of letters to Marie Stopes, the palaeobotanist, women’s rights campaigner and agony aunt, published as Mother England (London, 1929), can be read as a picture of the dystopian present, from which only the utopian practice of contraception can save humanity. Naomi Mitchison’s Comments on Birth Control (London, 1930), which challenges Stopes’s assumption that birth control is a universal good, begins pragmatically and segues into utopian thinking only in its final pages, even imagining a world in which women could control their bodies with their minds. These books are unfortunately out of print but can be found in the British Library.Google Scholar

Histories of Reproductive Technology

  1. Stimulating histories of interwar birth control include Clare Debenham, Birth Control and the Rights of Women: Post-Suffrage Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century (London, 2014), and Angus McLaren, Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain (Chicago, IL, 2012). Adrian Bingham explores public discourses around contraception in the same period. See Gender, Modernity and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford, 2004), and Family Newspapers?: Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press, 1918–1978 (Oxford, 2009).Google Scholar
  2. For debates around more recent reproductive technologies, a counterpart to Bingham’s studies is Jose van Dijck’s Manufacturing Babies and Public Consent: Debating the New Reproductive Technologies (Basingstoke, 1994). Other recommended accounts of IVF include Naomi Pfeffer, The Stork and the Syringe: A Political History of Reproductive Medicine (Cambridge, 1993); Maureen McNeil, Feminist Cultural Studies of Science and Technology (London, 2007), Chapters 5–6; and Sarah Franklin, Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells and the Future of Kinship (Durham, NC, 2013).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of LeedsLeedsUK

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