Ep 07: What If I Want to Have Kids?

How do we sustain a stable population in our future space settlements?  Do we require settlers to reproduce? How do we limit population growth when resources are scarce? What rights do children born in space have? Is it even possible to safely raise children in space?

Physician Shawna Pandya joins us for a discussion of the challenges of biological reproduction in space. Bioethicist Rebecca Kukla explores some of the potential problems and pitfalls around reproductive rights in a resource-limited environment like a space settlement.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Imagine this: You’ve been living and working in humanity’s newest space settlement for a few years, now. Your little community has hit a few bumps along the way, but you’ve pulled together and dealt with every obstacle you’ve faced. The settlement is becoming self-sustainable: you grow your own food, make your own power, and have even started to turn a profit on the interplanetary mineral market. People are beginning to make long-term plans, plans that include the next generation of citizens in your community. But do you have enough spare resources to spend on raising children? What if people don’t have babies fast enough to replace the aging population? Is it even possible to safely conceive and raise kids in space?

Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. Today’s episode is about reproduction in space. How do we maintain a sustainable population in a space settlement, without harming prospective parents or their children? If you decide you do or don’t want to have children in space, how much of that decision is yours and how much will be influenced by the community’s needs?

Human reproduction in space has never been tested, and we know so little about what the biological challenges might be, so this episode will include even more speculation than usual. For a quick background on the potential medical hazards, I talked with a physician who does research on this topic.

Shawna Pandya: “My name is Dr. Shawna Pandya. I am a licensed physician in general practice, and doing some extra training in surgery. I am also a citizen-scientist astronaut with Projects PoSSUM and PHEnOM. And I also do space-related research in psychological resilience as well as reproduction and sexuality in space.”

I asked Shawna what some of the challenges would be for someone who wanted to conceive and raise a baby in space.

Shawna Pandya: “The short answer is that space is trying to kill you… Every life form of all the species we have, whether, you know, primate or not, mammalian or not, despite having such a wide array of species and life here on Earth, every single one of them has had the luxury of developing in 1 g. The radiation has been constant, and– has been near constant, and the gravity, the 1-g gravity environment has absolutely been constant… There’s a huge breadth of literature on astronauts who are fully developed adults and how they fare in the zero-gravity environment, and every bodily system, whether you’re talking about their vision, or their nervous systems, or their immune systems, they’re affected. And often adversely so. And so, when you bring the question of, can we safely reproduce in space? There’s so many unknowns. And you can’t help but suspect that those effects that we see in developed, fully developed adults would be amplified in developing bodies.”

It might not even be possible to conceive viable fetuses in space, in which case the people in future space settlements will have a huge hurdle to overcome in terms of becoming independent from Earth. But there’s no way to know without trying it. Even if we do a lot of research with animal reproduction in space, we’ll still eventually have to experiment with actual mothers and babies.

Now we’re getting into medical ethics, so I called in an expert.

Rebecca Kukla: “My name is Rebecca Kukla. I’m a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, where I’m also a senior research scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics… So I’ve worked on topics from health communication and analyzing things like public service announcements around early motherhood and pregnancy, to how we do science and communicate about science around risks during pregnancy, to topics like what kind of obligations, if any, do mothers have to try to produce certain kinds of babies or avoid producing kinds of babies and that sort of thing.”

Rebecca pointed out that trying to experiment with safe methods of reproduction in space could violate a lot of the research ethics protocols we have here on Earth.

Rebecca Kukla: “I mean, the thing is, actually, if you look at our research ethics principles and protocols on Earth, if anything, we’re overly stringent when it comes to experimenting on fetuses and embryos and pregnant women. We let pregnant women engage in almost no research protocols. Even just completely theoretical, tiny risks rule women out from participating in research right now. And I think that’s actually a problem in the other direction. But what we would, in effect, be doing is swinging all the way to the other side. And it wouldn’t be part of an official research protocol, but we would, in effect, be doing incredibly risky research in this kind of uncontrolled condition. And that does go against what we think of as standard principles of research ethics.”

But let’s suppose we’ve crossed that bridge and we’ve figured out that it’s possible to bear healthy children in space, or on other planets. Maybe it takes some extra effort or technology, like medicine or specialized life support for the newborn. Or maybe fetus development isn’t a problem, but the baby can only be delivered surgically. What does this mean for our bare-bones, brand-new space settlers, who are surviving on whatever supplies they brought with them from Earth? Shawna Pandya discussed some of the potential problems.

Shawna Pandya: “The other challenge is– comes with the trade-offs that come with being able to support gestation and birth off-world. So, even now, on current space missions, there’s always trade-offs when it comes to medical supply kits. You’re limited by mass and volume. And the way you determine what you bring with you on your… space mission is what scenarios are most likely to come up, what is lightweight, has a long shelf life, and can be used for more than one medical condition. Now, you throw in something like a pregnancy in there, and suddenly you have a very wide need of medications and specific medical tools that may not be able to be used for other areas of medicine. And that may take up their own sig– not insignificant mass and volume on a space mission. So for example, consider that here on Earth, you know, a basic hospital, so even the furthest hospitals, they might not have C-section coverage, and they have to accept that. But then they have to send their higher-risk pregnancies to a facility that has an OR and could theoretically perform a C-section in an emergency situation. But at least they would have forceps, and vacuums for– and they have monitoring equipment specific to the fetus during delivery. You always have to be prepared for, you know, what’s the worst that could happen? And so that’s, you know, that becomes an ethical quandary. You know, if you have limited mass and volume, where’s the trade-off?”

Even later down the line, once a settlement has been established, it’s possible that conception and childbirth will remain something that’s very costly and difficult, either because you need extra support biologically, or because the expense of raising a child is so high. Does that mean that only people who can afford it will be able to have children?

In fact, the extreme limitations of a space settlement could make child-rearing costly for the whole community, not just the parents.

Shawna Pandya: “Because now not only do you have a crew member who’s likely going to have to go on some sort of maternity leave, the rest of the crew is picking up the slack now and filling in for the duties of the crew member who’s on medical leave. And then once the baby’s born, there’s now an extra mouth to feed.”

If your settlement is only producing enough food to barely feed all its inhabitants, what do you do with a baby who not only can’t contribute any labor to the community yet, but requires other people to divert their labor to taking care of them? What do you do when a baby is born with extra needs in terms of care or resources? Here’s Rebecca Kukla again.

Rebecca Kukla: “Presumably, at least at the beginning, there would be enormous and understandable pressures to, to whatever extent possible, produce healthy children who would be able to fully participate in continuing to found that colony. We would have way less infrastructure in place, both in terms of medical care, and in terms of social services– and even, I guess, in terms of educational services– we’d have way less infrastructure in place, for instance, for dealing with disabled or special needs children. And so aside from the risk issue, one of the concerns I have is, there’s already, here on Earth, increasing pressure on prospective parents to abort fetuses who prenatal tests show are going to be disabled or have special needs. And I worry that there would be heightened pressure to abort disabled fetuses in space colonies, especially at the beginning, for resource issues, if nothing else.”

This might remind you of something we discussed in the second episode of the podcast with astrophysicist Jesse Shanahan. Jesse argued that it’s better to make our space settlements more accessible instead of just requiring every space traveler to be healthy and able-bodied, because disability can happen to anyone. If we’re not prepared to welcome disabled space settlers and make it possible for them to live in and contribute to these new societies, what’s going to happen to the settlement’s children who are born disabled?

Rebecca Kukla: “…This would enforce a horrific kind of ableism where we dramatically disvalue children who have special needs or who can’t contribute in the same way to the propagation or founding of this colony… It would be a breeding ground, so to speak, for the worst kind of eugenic impulses, where people would start being under enormous imperatives to design specific sorts of babies that are gonna have the right qualities to propagate in the way that’s seen as valuable in that community. We have a long history of ethical concerns about that kind of eugenic program.”

Even before the baby is born, there will be a huge amount of pressure on its pregnant mother to ensure that her child is developing in a safe and healthy way in the extremely unsafe and unhealthy environment of space.

Rebecca Kukla: “I think that women already face enormous, disproportionate burdens to manage risk during pregnancy and to discipline their bodies during pregnancy in ways that are often contradictory and impossible. So you’re supposed to not exercise because it might be dangerous, but you’re also supposed to not get out of shape because that might be dangerous. You’re supposed to, you know, manage your emotions, because being overly emotional could be dangerous, but you’re not supposed to take any drugs to manage your emotions. So, women are already asked to police their bodies during pregnancy… towards the goal of producing a healthy baby in ways that are nearly impossible if not impossible to carry out. And I feel like if we add on a whole set of unknown risks, and say, “Well, for all we know this might be dangerous, we really just don’t have any idea,” women are gonna be caught in a position of trying to manage so many risks, both theoretical and actual, that they won’t have control over their bodies at all, or be able to act in any way at all that’s considered acceptable. So that strikes me as a serious concern.”

Even on Earth, babies are a massive drain on resources for the first few years of their lives, and in a world where even the air has to be imported or produced, overpopulation could be a big threat to the existence of a space settlement. So how do you keep your population under control? Mandatory birth control? Requiring permits to have children? A legal limit on the number of kids that each settler can have? All of these ideas have been explored in science fiction, and of course even real-world societies like China have struggled with population control. What do you do when someone breaks one of these rules? We talked about crime and punishment in a previous episode — do you lock up the parents? What do you do with the fetus, who never asked for any of this, but who could pose a threat to the settlement just by being born?

Rebecca Kukla: “I mean, there are ethical problems in the sense that coercing or manipulating somebody into an abortion and into that kind of control over their body seems to be, prima facie, unethical. Whether or not you think that abortion is ethical under some circumstances, surely most of us agree that trying to pressure somebody into an abortion or force them into an abortion is always wrong. So I’m concerned that people would be under huge pressure to do away with fetuses who were seen as unsupportable in these new environments, where there weren’t many resources.”

And then there’s the opposite problem: What happens when your settlement is underpopulated? In order to become self-sufficient, a settlement has to be able to maintain, and hopefully grow, its population without having to keep shipping in new settlers from Earth. Any dip in the birth rate could mean a severe labor shortage down the line. So how do you maintain a stable population? Mandating reproduction sounds like an even worse idea than mandating birth control.

Rebecca Kukla: “In addition to all of the worries around coercion in both directions to do with reproduction itself, there’s a whole other cluster of issues around the fact that the way that we generally reproduce is through sex. So if we’re worried about pressure on people to reproduce, we also need to be worried about pressure on people to consent to sex in the first place. So I think that there’s a whole interesting set of ethical concerns around sexual consent that would come up.”

This goes back to something else we talked about in the second episode: when you’re selecting who gets to go live in your space settlement, are you thinking about how those people will reproduce in the future? What does that look like? Do you only bring people who want to have children? Specifically, do you only bring straight people who are interested in having kids the traditional way?

Rebecca Kukla: “I mean, there’s a whole temporally prior set of questions around who we pick to do this colonizing in the first place. And if there’s a huge bias in favor of people who are interested in heterosexual reproduction, you’re right that that, along the way, turns into other kinds of biases that we’re not comfortable with. And also, I mean, people’s sexuality is fluid. They may think that they’re interested in heterosexual reproduction. I mean, presumably, we’re gonna be mostly picking young, healthy people to go do this in the first place. And young people’s opinions change, and their desires change. And they may get there and decide that heterosexuality is not for them after all. And even aside from the sexual coercion point, yeah, there’s a real question about whether that would become, you know, a source of resentment or prejudice, not for the usual homophobic reasons but for a whole new set of reasons. Yeah, that’s a real concern. And then of course, you know, when you’re looking at one generation on, then you can’t control who’s there in the same way, but you still have a small colony that presumably is still under enormous pressure to propagate itself. And so there’s a worry that people born into that colony who turn out to be queer or just not interesting heterosexual reproduction would be facing various kinds of censure and pressure, as well.”

Let’s say you decide that only straight or bisexual people who are willing and able to have kids are allowed to come to your space settlement. That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll all want to reproduce, or that they won’t change their mind about wanting to have kids. Do you make people sign a contract that says they’ll produce a certain number of children for the settlement?

Rebecca Kukla: “But there’s an interesting question about how you can hold somebody to an agreement to reproduce. If they get there and they change their mind, and they say, “You know what? I don’t want kids after all. There’s nobody here I want to reproduce with.” How far can we actually ethically go in terms of forcing somebody to reproduce that they don’t want to? All of that applies just as much to sex, right? So if there’s just a few people on this colony, and you need people to be having sex in order to reproduce, in order to keep the colony going, and somebody doesn’t wanna have sex with anybody who’s in that colony– Surely we don’t think that forced sex is okay. But even putting that aside, you know, even putting open rape to one side, it just seems like having people be under enormous pressure to consent to sex is clearly problematic.”

Rebecca Kukla: “Furthermore, presumably, at least at the beginning, these would be small, distant colonies without a lot of oversight, without a lot of people around, without a well-developed legal system in place, without well-developed institutions in place. And quite aside from the pressure to reproduce, I just worry about what would happen to our norms of consent under those conditions, right? Already on Earth, it’s the case that if people are in isolated conditions without a lot of oversight or without a lot of redress, there’s a whole lot of sexual assault, there’s a whole lot of sexual coercion. How effective would we be at enabling people to have real sexual autonomy in that kind of frontier condition when there isn’t much set up yet, given how much of a problem it already is here on Earth?”

We’ve talked a lot about the issues that prospective parents will face in space. But what about the kids? They’ll be at an even greater risk from the hazardous environment of space.

Rebecca Kukla: “And also, of course, much more straightforwardly, I think there are worries about the kids who would be born who would be kind of an experiment. I mean, we would be producing new humans under conditions that we really don’t understand. And quite aside from what we can or can’t ask women to do to try to control for risk, inevitably, we are going to be creating children under unknown conditions who might suffer pretty severe consequences from our not understanding the risk… Early on, when you are, of necessity, just basically experimenting with how kids are gonna turn out, I think there’s serious ethical questions about those people that you’re creating under those conditions and what we can or can’t do by way of taking risks with lives that wouldn’t exist at all if we didn’t take them.”

Physician Shawna Pandya pointed to a possibility that’s been hinted at by science and talked about a lot in science fiction: What if kids raised in space are so physically different that they can’t survive on the Earth?

Shawna Pandya: “You know, a very obvious one that comes up, and I think has been covered in some recent Hollywood films is, if you give birth to a child in an altered gravity environment and somehow they survive, somehow they have no developmental anomalies, but they’re still suited for, you know, a Martian environment, which is one-third gravity, or the lunar environment, which is one-sixth gravity, could they ever come back to Earth and could they survive there? And if not, you know, is it ethical to condemn, you know, another living being to not be able to come back to Earth?”

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about without finding any easy answers. If being born in space means that you can’t live on Earth, your parents have taken away the choice of where you can live. Is that wrong? Kids today on Earth don’t usually get a say in where their parents move them. Think of the children of refugees and migrants: it’s not legally up to them if they decide they’d rather stay in their home country. But what if migrating with your children meant that those children could never return to their home countries, ever? Is the ability to live on Earth a birthright that future space settlers will be stealing from their kids? Will children who have lived their whole lives on Mars or the Moon even feel the same connection to Earth as their parents? Will they even want to go back?

I brought all this up in my conversation with ethicist Rebecca Kukla.

Rebecca Kukla: “Yeah, that’s fascinating. And I mean, it mirrors problems that we already have around children born under refugee conditions, and children born in precarious imm– you know, with precarious immigration status. And I hadn’t really thought of exactly that issue, but you’re right, that there’s all kinds of troubling issues around creating new lives that then don’t have the kind of mobility or connection to home that other people have.”

Rebecca brought up a really relevant parallel in bioethics that’s often discussed in terms of children with disabilities.

Rebecca Kukla: “More generally, there’s a sort of standard problem in bioethics that people love to talk about, that’s sometimes called the identity problem, or the harm paradox… There’s a question around whether you can do something wrong to somebody or do harm to somebody by creating them. Even if you’re creating them into a life that is very subideal. Because the idea is, yes, they might have a life that’s very subideal, but if you hadn’t created them, then they wouldn’t exist at all. And surely that would be even worse. So some people argue that, you know, as long as their existence is better than non-existence, then it’s impossible to say that they’ve been harmed by being brought into existence, even if their existence is, you know, kind of miserable because they have whatever it is: terrible, painful health conditions, or an extremely restricted existence, or live in an extremely restrictive society and can’t leave, or whatever it may be. As long as it’s better that they exist, you know, from their own point of view, as long as their own existence is better than non-existence, then they haven’t been harmed. Because it’s not like there’s some other possible being that they could have been, right? They wouldn’t have come into existence at all if they didn’t come into existence in that circumstance. That’s an argument that a lot of bioethicists struggle with. But it’s a very counterintuitive one, right? I mean, we feel like we can do harm to somebody or at least, if not do harm to them, like we can do wrong by somebody by bringing them into a life that is suboptimal. But it’s actually kind of conceptually difficult to say why we’re doing wrong by them, right?”

Rebecca Kukla: “So similarly, I think there are complexities of exactly the same sort here. If we decided that yeah, living life on this space colony would be heavily burdensome, there would be all kinds of, all sorts of coercion in place, there would be very strict sexual norms, there would be a great deal of heteronormativity and homophobia, you would never be able to leave because you’re physiologically incapable of leaving– That sounds like a terrible set of conditions to bring children into. And yet, from those children’s point of view, presumably, they would still prefer to be born than not to be born at all. So we have to look elsewhere for where the ethical problem with that is. And maybe the ethical problem is with setting up a colony with those conditions in the first place.”

As with all of the topics I’ve covered in this podcast so far, moving the conversation about reproductive rights into space just makes the problems more difficult. And it’s not like reproductive ethics is a simple topic to begin with. Discussions about reproduction, bodily autonomy, disability, and children’s rights can bring up a lot of strong emotions and controversy. But at the same time, it’s vital to have these conversations if we want to eventually move human civilization beyond the Earth. Rebecca gave me some great insight into this conflict between an individual’s reproductive choices and a society’s needs.

Rebecca Kukla: “It seems to me it’s a heightening of a problem that we have already, which is reproduction is this incredibly intimate bodily process… The reproductive choices we make are extremely intimate in the sense that they have a huge consequence for how our life narrative goes, and how we set up everything to do with how we live. They’re also incredibly intimate in the sense that they have to do with what happens inside our own body and how our own body works. And so for both of those reasons, it feels like reproductive choices ought to be extremely personal and we have a lot of legal decisions reaffirming that they’re extremely personal. And yet, society has an enormous investment in what the next generation looks like and if they’re healthy and who they are and how many of them there are and so on. And so, what should be an intimate decision has always become this kind of matter for public debate and public control. And it seems like in the kinds of circumstances that you’re talking about, all of that would just be ridiculously heightened. Whether it’s pressure to reproduce, pressure not to reproduce, pressure to produce a certain sort of baby with certain sort of traits, or pressure to get rid of a certain sort of baby with certain sorts of traits. All of those thing would be, quite understandably, seen as matters of public concern and public debate, rather than intimate, private matters about how you run your own body and your own family. And that seems like it raises a whole world of complicated ethical pitfalls and issues.”

So what do you think? How can we learn about human reproduction in space while minimizing the risk to the parent and fetus? How can we manage the population in our future space settlements without forcing people to give up the right to control their own bodies? And what rights do the children of those settlements have?

Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com. Remember that Episode 12 will be our audience feedback episode, so please send in your written or audio commentary on any of the topics we’ve discussed so far if you’d like to be featured in the episode.

Shawna Pandya can be found on Twitter @ShawnaPandya or on her website at shawnapandya.com. She’s got a book chapter called “Logistics of Reproduction in Space” in the upcoming Handbook of Life Support Systems for Spacecraft and Extraterrestrial Habitats by Erik Seedhouse. Rebecca Kukla has a book coming out in 2019 called City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another. She’s also published a book called Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies, about the way that women’s bodies are regulated and disciplined during pregnancy, that you can check out if you’re interested in learning more about some of the issues we discussed in this episode.

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.