What if women had total control over pregnancy?
Even with today’s contraceptive options, more than a third of pregnancies are unintended. How would the world change if women only ever got pregnant when, and at the age, they wanted?
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.
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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