For millennia, society has treated women as subordinate to men in everything from biology to intellect. Scientists – who historically almost always have been male – also viewed the world through this lens. Researchers studying animal reproduction, for example, focused almost exclusively on males.
“It was once thought that females were this passive organ in which sperm cruises on in and the egg doesn’t do much,” says Patrice Rosengrave, a research fellow at the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand. “It was all to do with men – with sperm.”
It’s only recently that researchers have started to uncover the astounding array of methods that females of many species use to assert agency over their offspring. Female salmon’s ovarian fluid, for example, actively speeds up or slows down sperm from certain males, giving favoured mates an edge. Following insemination, female mice and red junglefowl select against sperm from males that are close genetic matches, preventing inbreeding. Female drosophila flies can store sperm in special organs for later use, and then selectively use sperm from preferred males. And because male ducks are prone to rape and penetrate females with long, corkscrew penises that turn anti-clockwise, females have evolved clockwise-rotating vaginas to prevent forced copulations.
It’s only recently that researchers have started to uncover the astounding array of methods that females of many species use to assert agency over their offspring
While people of course are not adapted in the way of ducks and flies, many women now have more control over their pregnancies as well – through the use of birth control, the day-after pill and abortions.
But these tools are not universally available, assured or necessarily desired. For personal, religious or cultural reasons, women may not want to use one of these methods. And those who want to aren’t always able: women in developing countries and underserved communities may lack access to birth control while others live in places where abortion is illegal or under threat. In the US, for example, anti-abortion measures have been sweeping state legislatures while access to abortion in Northern Ireland is still severely limited by law.
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Meanwhile, of course, simply having access to ways of controlling reproduction doesn’t mean any of the tools currently available are infallible. Contraceptives fail, spur-of-the-moment decisions backfire, sex workers are pressured to forgo protection, men rape women and some women simply have no say-so in when, how often or under what circumstances sex occurs.
What if women everywhere suddenly inherited some of the reproductive abilities seen in our animal relatives? Namely, what if women could miraculously control, 100% of the time, not only when they became pregnant and at what age, but by whom (including in cases, like rape, when their right to choose a sexual partner is not respected)?
Pondering this hypothetical question highlights how beneficial such abilities would be for women and for society as a whole. But it also highlights the likelihood that women would likely immediately come under attack from those who don’t want them to have such control – and emphasises just how far we are from living in a world in which all women enjoy full autonomy over their bodies.
Many animals have evolved ways of allowing females to have some degree of choice over who the father of their offspring can be (Credit: Alamy)
The first and most obvious result, of course, would be the end of unplanned pregnancies. Women in almost all societies around the world are already having fewer babies for a variety of reasons. Still, in 2012, one of the more recent years for which data is available, 40% of the world’s 85 million pregnancies were unintended. In some countries, like the US, the percentage is higher: 45% of the six million annual pregnancies there are unintended.
For women, this would come with newfound peace of mind that “their body won’t suddenly do this incredibly disruptive thing of being pregnant”, says Karen Newman, an independent sexual and reproductive health and rights management consultant based in London.
No longer relying on contraceptives at all also would mean saving money and avoiding potential side effects. Some 500 million women, for example, have used the pill at some point in their life. Some users experience depression, blood clots, migraine, anxiety and more as a result. Sterilisation – the most popular contraceptive method worldwide – can likewise cause major complications, including death. (So, of course, can labour itself).
Birth control and abortions offer women more control over their pregnancies than ever before in history, but they are not available to everyone (Credit: Getty Images)
Would having total biological control lead to women having riskier sex (or to sexually transmitted infections suddenly increasing from unprotected sex)? “We haven’t seen that since the onset of effective contraception,” says Wendy Chavkin, a professor emerita of population and family health, obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University in New York. One study of nearly 8,000 US women, for example, found no evidence that providing women with greater access to no-cost contraception increased their number of sexual partners or how much they had sex.
Without unwanted pregnancies, one would expect that the number of abortions would decline as well. In fact, that’s what the US study found: providing the women with contraception decreased their rates of both unintended pregnancy and of abortion, significantly so among teenagers.
That would be a positive for both anti-abortion and pro-choice individuals. It would also be safer. Each year, 25 million women undergo unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization. These procedures – defined as those which are carried out by unqualified individuals, often in unsanitary conditions – cause major complications costing $553m (£456m) to treat annually. They account for up to 13% of annual maternal deaths.
There are all sorts of things that turn a wanted pregnancy into something a woman feels she cannot cope with at this time - Karen Newman
“In the West, this hypothetical situation wouldn’t make a difference to health, because abortions here are extremely safe,” Chavkin says. “But if your choice is to have someone put a stick up your cervix in sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America, then yes, indeed, this would make a difference for many people who currently either die or are maimed from extremely dangerous procedures.”
That said, a hypothetical situation in which women have total control over their pregnancies – start to finish – would by necessity still include access to safe abortions. This is because deciding to conceive is only part of a planned pregnancy. Over the next nine months, women may receive a medical diagnosis or have a change in circumstances that impacts their decision: test results can reveal that a foetus has a condition in which it could not survive outside of the womb, for example, or the woman may develop a medical condition that could put her own life at risk if she were to deliver. Or an expectant mother’s life circumstances – a job, a supporting partner – may abruptly change. “There are all sorts of things that turn a wanted pregnancy into something a woman feels she cannot cope with at this time,” Newman says.
Although the global population is increasing, women in almost all societies around the world are having fewer babies per individual than they once were (Credit: Getty Images)
Birth rates also would decline. But this wouldn’t mean that population growth – currently set to hit 10.9 billion by 2100 – would stabilise overnight. Women might still desire numerous children, and cultural pressures and gendered expectations to have multiple children may persist as well.
Taken together, though, all of these things – fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer children and fewer dangerous abortions – ultimately would benefit women, and society overall.
“If you eliminated the one thing that probably more than anything currently holds many women back [from education, career or other pursuits] – constant child-bearing – then the world would suddenly open to them in a way it never was before,” says Susannah Mayhew, a professor of health policy, systems and reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
More women would be able to complete their education and join the workforce, as supported by overwhelming real-world evidence showing a correlation between family planning, fewer children and continue education. This would boost economies and help developing countries grow at more sustainable rates, Mayhew says. Indeed, the only countries in the world that have achieved economic development without first or simultaneously reducing their population growth rates are oil-rich Arab ones.
Increased access to the public sphere means that more women would probably opt for public roles, as well, which could radically alter the world for the better. “By dint of having more women decision-makers, you would get a more compassionate, happy and peaceful society, one with goals that are not purely to constantly be making more and more money and to hold the most nukes,” Mayhew says, citing extensive research showing that women may have the advantage with leadership skills such as empathy and prioritisation of social values.
More women would be able to complete their education and join the workforce if they had total control over when and how they had children (Credit: Getty Images)
With complete control over pregnancy, we would also see more older mothers. Increasing numbers of women are already postponing getting pregnant. Reassurance that pregnancy would be a possibility later would likely further alleviate pressure to have children earlier in life.
That would allow women to focus even more on their education or careers. But, if they were delaying pregnancy into their late 40s or 50s, we would see a small increased risk of child-health complications like Downs syndrome, Mayhew says. Still, she points out that it is actually far more dangerous for a woman to have a baby as a teenager than it is to have one in her early 40s; older mothers also enjoy advantages in terms of child welfare, since they are more likely to be able to fully provide for their children.
What if our thought experiment about controlling the terms of one’s pregnancy extended so far, it meant being able to store a partner’s sperm for later use? Obviously, regardless of whether the donor remains (or ever was) in the picture, this would raise ethical questions about consent – and likely further ignite the debate over to what extent men should have a say over a sexual partner’s pregnancy.
Meanwhile, sperm from men deemed by women to be of the highest quality – whether because of intellect, looks or some other desired trait – may become a resource to be competed over. “Maybe there would be this feeling from women that you can always get a better mate to have a better father for your child,” says Renée Firman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth.
Until women everywhere are treated equally with men, we are unlikely to see a world where women can fully control when and by whom they become pregnant (Credit: Getty Images)
Because of this possibility, however, men may become more diligent than they currently are about using condoms. And, knowing that their partners may be storing sperm from other men, expectant fathers may become more paranoid that their children are not their own, and paternity tests could become more common. In the very long term, men may also begin to evolve sperm that kill the sperm of other males stored alongside theirs, or to develop some other biological mechanism to up their odds of paternity.
All of this, of course, would change relationship dynamics. And some men would not respond well to women’s newfound power, seeing it as a threat to their own. They might develop “all sorts of punitive efforts to restrict access to whatever it is that gives women control over their own fertility, bodies and lives”, says Chavkin. “Or they may increase efforts to depict women as selfish perpetrators of harm against the foetus.”
“If you take the trajectory of this thought experiment and extend it about eight miles, what you get is The Handmaid’s Tale,” adds Newman, referring to the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood.
Hypothetical fantasies aside, one thing is clear, Mayhew says: we are far from a reality in which women fully control when and by whom they become pregnant – because we are far from living in a world in which women everywhere are truly treated as equal to men.
“Even in rich countries, this would entail a radical departure from the status quo – the whole mindset of society would need to change,” she says. “I think it’s really sad and very telling that it’s so hard to imagine such a fundamentally different world.”
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