A World With Choice Reversed

By Ande Jacobson

Alex was musing over something that had long bothered her about humankind. Humans were the only species that had the capacity to use external intervention to voluntarily control or even stop their population growth and reach a steady state either by preventing a pregnancy from happening if it was the wrong time, or freely choosing whether to take a pregnancy to term or terminate an unwanted one. Unfortunately they kept getting bogged down with in-fighting surrounding forcing people to complete pregnancies whether they wanted to or not based on religious convictions or control issues. A few years earlier, she had read a fascinating work of fiction where a mad scientist genetically engineered a virus that over the course of a single week infected every human in the world, and as a result randomly sterilized a third of the human population. He had engineered the virus to modify and become a part of the human genome so it was inheritable, but the trait only turned on about a third of the time permanently reducing the human population over subsequent generations to something more sustainable.

Being a biochemist involved in genetic engineering research, she knew that this wasn’t terribly feasible given the frequency of mutations that would change the desired outcome. She was also keenly aware that even if it were possible to engineer a stable methodology to do such a thing, it would be untenable from a legal and ethical standpoint. Still, it got her thinking about what it would be like if instead of having to use intervention to prevent or end a pregnancy, what if humans had to use outside medical intervention to create a pregnancy in the first place?

She wasn’t thinking about a Brave New World type of thing where human procreation no longer took place the old-fashioned way but was done in labs. Instead, she wondered what it might be like if, either through evolution or genetic engineering, humankind was rendered 100% sterile at birth, but through some kind of simple, easy to obtain medical intervention, people could become fertile for a single event to create a pregnancy to procreate. To eliminate abuse or misuse of that technology, she imagined a world where choice meant voluntarily entering into some kind of contract to obtain the necessary medical intervention for procreation. She imagined the contract being necessary to ensure those receiving whatever treatment was needed wanted it themselves and weren’t being coerced in any way, and that the resulting child would be wanted and cared for. In her mind, it was the perfect way to eliminate unwanted pregnancies.

That night at dinner, she shared her thoughts with her twin brother Rowan. They shared a house and both taught at the local university, she a professor of biochemistry, and he a professor of music and religious studies. Beyond having different academic areas of expertise, they also differed dramatically with respect to religion. Alex, ever the scientist, was a de facto atheist, and Rowan had a strong faith. This divide often prompted their nightly philosophical debates.

“Let me get this straight,” said Rowan. “You’re saying that in this imaginary world you envision, nobody can have a child without some kind of contract and medical intervention?”

“Yes,” answered Alex.

“Where is the mystery and wonder of life then?” asked Rowan.

“What do you mean?”

“Part of what makes life special and precious is that it isn’t completely controlled by us. It’s a gift that is bestowed upon us. We don’t choose when we are born, and mostly, we don’t choose when we die either. That’s God’s choice, not ours,” answered Rowan.

“You don’t really believe that brother,” smirked Alex.

“Well, I do and I don’t. I believe that life is a precious gift from God, but I also think that as individuals, we have the right to self-determination with respect to choice, i.e., I don’t think anybody should be forced to go through a pregnancy if they don’t want to. As to the core problem with choice as it exists in our world today, i.e., when life begins, I’m a bit in flux on that one,” answered Rowan.

“Ah yes, the line drawing,” stated Alex. “Does life begin at conception or at birth, or somewhere in between? That one is easy – life begins at birth, and before that the fetus is a parasite living off of its host in a clinical sense, so that’s why the choice should be the host’s, not anybody else’s.”

“I agree that the choice should be the mother’s, but I also completely understand defining life beginning at conception. After all, that little bundle of cells becomes a baby,” said Rowan.

“If you say it’s at conception, why stop there? Why not say that life begins as a gamete, and because of that it’s illegal to waste any of them? After all, every single sperm and every single egg has the potential to become a person,” muttered Alex.

“I get it, and I agree that it can be taken too far. I’m on your side. I believe in choice, but aren’t we talking about your imaginary world where there’s no such thing as an unwanted pregnancy, i.e., where the choice isn’t to end but to start a pregnancy? My point was that part of the gift from God is that the starting of a life isn’t entirely our choice. It’s God’s.”

“Not in the world I’m imagining,” said Alex.

“Maybe in your imaginary world, God’s will is putting it in somebody’s head that they want to enter into that contract and create a new life,” suggested Rowan.

“Why do you always have to inject God into everything?” asked Alex.

“Because God is in everything,” said Rowan smiling.

“Argh,” snarled Alex.

“Ok, ok, I’ll back off a little. In all seriousness though, if humans had complete control over their procreation that way, how would you envision they could prevent all abuse such as forcing people into contracts, or treating them against their will? Or are humans not flawed in your imaginary world?” asked Rowan. “It’s because of those flaws that we need God’s guidance after all.”

“You can be quite infuriating, brother. I don’t know what mechanisms they’d have to prevent abuse, but in such a world, particularly if they got there via evolution, might it be possible that humankind could have evolved beyond some of the petty grievances that are so all-consuming today?” asked Alex.

“So you are envisioning a Utopia of sorts, and you still didn’t answer my question,” said Rowan.

“I don’t know. Maybe they’d do some kind of psychological testing before allowing them to enter into the contracts to ensure they weren’t being coerced in any way. And before you ask, I envision that this would not be financially based. It would be a basic service available without cost to all who want it no matter who they were. OK, maybe there would be a minimum age so that kids couldn’t do this, but otherwise, no restrictions,” said Alex.

“So somebody who was completely unstable, or violent, or incapable of caring for another human being would be allowed to enter into this contract,” said Rowan.

“I don’t know,” said Alex with a bit of exasperation.

Alex stared at Rowan and snickered.

“What?” asked Rowan.

“You are good for me, brother. I haven’t fully considered what possible restrictions would make sense, and I’m sure there would be some. Still, it’s a basic framework that would flip a problematic choice that we have completely botched in our present world as we continue to fight about something that should be a nonissue while we destroy our habitat in part because there are just too doggone many of us. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the capability to reach a steady state and stop destroying our planet, but because of our arrogance and self-importance, we refuse to do that.”

“I can understand why you might think that, but consider another possibility,” said Rowan. “What if all of us are really needed? What if the grand plan is for the seed of humanity to explore and expand beyond the Earth? We’ve taken our first steps to explore space. We’re not yet to the point where we can survive indefinitely away from Earth, but we’re getting there. What if we need our numbers to survive going forward? How can we say that any of us are truly expendable?”

Alex stared at him. “I don’t know where to begin with that.”

Rowan chuckled. “I know, and I’m mostly just yanking your chain. I agree that there are too many of us. I also really do believe that people should be able to choose whether they want to have a child or not. Still, doesn’t it ever bother you that being able to stop somebody from being born could be depriving the world of somebody that is truly needed whether driven by God or not?”

“No, not at all,” said Alex. “I really don’t think that any one human is that important, and if our species were to disappear tomorrow for whatever reason, the Earth would survive and in many ways would be far better off.”

“That’s dark even for you,” said Rowan.

“Yeah, I know, but I’m just frustrated with how destructive humans have been, and that novel got me thinking that maybe there was a way to at least partially fix it,” said Alex.

Rowan sat back and felt a cold shiver run up his spine. He’d read the novel she spoke of, and it never occurred to him that something like that could actually happen. He didn’t plan to have kids, and he knew Alex didn’t either. Neither of them ever wanted to go that direction which was one reason neither had ever considered marrying anyone, or even dating seriously, but to think that anybody in the scientific community could make that choice for humanity as a whole, that terrified him.

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