The increase in technology which allows us to see, monitor, and control pregnancy has only made Western culture more anxious about it. Ultrasound gives us a fetal image, prenatal genetics is progressing to a point where fetal DNA can be sorted from the mother's blood and analyzed, and in vitro fertilization lets us choose which embryos will even make it to the uterus. Yet legislative and judicial actions to control pregnancy and pregnant women have been increasing steadily in recent years.
In the 2010 session, 24 states enacted legislation dealing with reproductive rights, including a Missouri law requiring providers to offer fetal anesthesia to women getting abortions and a Utah bill to classify some miscarriages as murder.1
In the 2011 legislative session, state legislators introduced more than 900 items dealing with reproduction. These include abortion bans to replace Roe v. Wade introduced in 20 states, bills to ban insurance coverage of abortion in 24 states, and bills dealing with substance abuse during pregnancy in 15 states. Twenty states (just so far this year) have introduced ultrasound requirements prior to abortion. These bills require a provider to show the ultrasound image to the woman seeking an abortion (though the woman is "permitted to avert her eyes," in the words of Alabama's proposed bill), showing the importance we give to this techno-image. Legislators enacted 162 of those 900 items as new laws, 49% which restrict access to abortion services.2
This spring in Ohio, a fetus "testified" in a hearing on an abortion bill.
In the courts, there continues to be a steady stream of cases dealing with the behavior of women during pregnancy. In just the past couple years, courts have tried a pregnant woman for fetal death resulting from a suicide attempt (State of Indiana v. Bei Bei Shuai), sought to confine a pregnant woman to the hospital against her will (Burton v. Florida), and charged a pregnant woman who tested positive for drug use under a "chemical endangerment" statue intended to keep kids out of meth labs (Kimbrough v. Alabama). In total, in the last couple decades, more than 200 women in more than 20 states have been arrested for their actions during pregnancy.3
This anxiety around reproduction permeates David Cronenberg's film The Fly, though it is 25 years old. It is mentioned several times that Dr. Brundle's teleportation method doesn't just transfer particles from one telepod to the next, but deconstructs an object then reproduces it. That's why a man with a fly next to him won't reappear as a man with a fly next to him but as all of the man and fly particles deconstructed and reconstructed as one object. And that's why Brundle's first test with teleporting a baboon resulted in an inside-out baboon. The computer was (re)producing the creature, and producing life can bring errors.
Of course, it's not the computer doing the thinking but the one who programmed the computer: Brundle. He alludes to this after the failed baboon experiment: "Computers are dumb; they only know what you tell them. I must not know enough about the flesh myself." After the accident that combines him and the fly, Brundle uses language making the connection between teleportation and human reproduction even more explicit: "The computer got confused ... and it decided to, uh, splice us together. It mated us, me and the fly."
The telepods give the male scientist Brundle a way to access the female power of reproducing life, even if that was not a conscious consideration as he pursued his research. He initially touts the superiority of this power, saying to Veronica "You're afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren't you? I'll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don't you?" Once he realizes the ways in which the teleporter is acting as a rudimentary gene splicer, he devises a plan to recover his disappearing humanity. As he works, we see the computer screen, which reads:
TELEPOD 1: TRANSMITTER OF SUBJECT A
TELEPOD 2: TRANSMITTER OF SUBJECT B
TELEPOD 3: RECEIVER OF GENETICALLY-FUSED A-B COMBINATION SUBJECT
The similarities to human reproduction are clear; in both situations, Subject A and Subject B combine to form "genetically-fused A-B combination subject." Brundle, as the programmer of the computer, would metaphorically take over reproduction, enacting a male birth fantasy.
The pregnancy metaphor in the film is enriched by the actual pregnancy of Veronica. It is wrought with anxiety from the start, since fertilization may have occurred after Brundle's genes were scrambled. This resounds with the anxiety in real-world discussions of germ-line genetic modifications: the great unknown of what will be passed on and how the genes will manifest in offspring. The lack of control Veronica feels over her pregnancy is quite clear in the nightmare she has of giving birth to a giant larval entity.
After discovering she's pregnant, Veronica visits Brundle and finds him less human than ever. Upon leaving, she says to Stathis, "I want this thing out of my body now. You should have seen him! There could be anything in here-- in MY body." Stathis can't quite understand her urgency, the bodily terror she feels at having a potential monster living inside her. The male doctor they visit for the abortion doesn't understand her urgency either. He suggests running tests on the fetus but Veronica quickly counters, "Tests can't tell you anything for sure. The baby could start out normal and then..." Even 25 years later in the era of fetal genetic testing, we have the feeling we can never really be sure "what's in there."
Before the abortion can be performed, Brundle makes it clear that Veronica is not fully in charge of her own reproduction by breaking into the office and dragging her out, once again exercising power over reproductive decisions.
The film ends with Brundle making a final plea for his unique version of reproduction, wanting to join himself, Veronica, and Veronica's fetus into one body: "We'll be the ultimate family. A family of three joined together in one body. More human than I am alone." Veronica is unwilling and Stathis (another male) thwarts the plan. Veronica's reproductive future is left unstated; the viewer doesn't know if she will go back for the abortion or if Brundle's pleas and pitiful death will make her reconsider. Interestingly, in the opera version of The Fly, also helmed by Cronenberg, a final scene was added in which Veronica "proclaims that she will have Seth's baby so that he will live on in some form or other."4
Perhaps opera-Veronica has fallen prey to the "pregnancy denouement to leave the door open for a sequel"--but that's a topic for another post...
- Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: 2010 State Policy Review. Guttmacher Institute.
- Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: State Trends at Midyear, 2011. Guttmacher Institute.
- Center for Reproductive Rights. "Punishing Women for Their Behavior During Pregnancy: An Approach that Undermines Women's Health and Children's Interests." Briefing paper (2000): 1-21.
- Riding, Alan. "Trying to Teach 'The Fly' to Soar Operatically." The New York Times 05 July 2008.
- The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz. Brooksfilms, 1986. DVD.