Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Double feature: Unnatural motherhoods

What do we lose when medical technology takes the place of nature?

In 2023, we had the curious confluence of two films that couldn't be more different in tone, yet explore the same idea: the technological extension of childrearing. In the futuristic comedy The Pod Generation, directed by Sophie Barthes, a biotech company markets an artificial uterus as the solution to spare women from the discomforts of pregnancy; in the medical horror thriller Birth/Rebirth, directed by Laura Moss, a reclusive pathologist invents a cure for death that lets a grieving mother continue raising the child she just lost. Albeit from opposite directions, both stories introduce the same situation: a character who seeks the joy of motherhood without the accompanying pain. In The Pod Generation, the goal is to be a mother without having to go through morning sickness, random cravings, lumbago, swollen feet and the thousand potential risks of delivery. In Birth/Rebirth, the goal is to be a mother without having to worry about the child's fragility ever again; to have, as it were, a handy reset button to push every time tragedy strikes. In both plots, the brute facts of living in a human body are treated as an obstacle to true family happiness, an obstacle that medical technology can remove—provided you can pay for it.

Let's look first at The Pod Generation. This film satirizes the anxious competition to give children the best head start: the babies incubated in the company's smooth pastel machines get specially formulated nutrients, 24/7 monitoring of vital signs, neural stimulation and a chance to study at an elite school run by the same gestation center. Every variable is kept under tight supervision. Uncertainty is inadmissible. This degree of aversion to the messiness of biology often threatens to descend into facile moralizing à la Black Mirror, but unlike in Black Mirror, these characters are at least standard-issue human beings with a baseline ability to avoid obviously self-destructive choices. The Pod Generation has no shortage of criticism to throw at corporatized medicine, intrusive digital assistants and the culture of neverending performance review, but it doesn't treat those modern annoyances as an inevitable product of natural human greed. If anything, the film veers a bit too far in the other direction, with an ending that amounts to a defense of home birth.

Then we have Birth/Rebirth. Although the technological innovation in this case is one lone researcher's secret project, the economics of modern medicine come into play here too: the serum that reverses death needs very specific ingredients that the deuteragonist, an alarmingly single-minded genius with little clue of social graces, goes to shocking extremes to procure. Much in the manner of Frankenstein, this doctor views human tissue as no more than raw material to work on, and when the components she needs for the formula can no longer be extracted from her own reproductive system, she sees no problem with using someone else's. The later reveal that she experimented on her own mother while developing the cure for death is a fitting echo for the film's theme of people viewed as a resource. It's fascinating that science fiction has often gone that way; although it's very human to want to live more, somehow the attempt to eliminate death seems to require a degree of dehumanization.

Control over the beginning of life and control over its end: isn't that the dream? One almost wants to reanimate the corpse of Foucault only to show him these two movies. Medical advances have made it conceivable, almost achievable, to have a world without the pain of giving life and without the pain of losing it. Indeed, the entire field of medicine exists because humankind decided that pain shouldn't be an accepted part of life. And yet, we still maintain some resistance to the idea of eliminating all pain. Not too long ago, the introduction of epidural anesthesia in childbirth met with opposition from some traditionalists who believed it was mothers' divine mandate to suffer heroically. Sure, moms are awesome, but our culture can sometimes lavish a weird degree of reverence on mothers. Why should conception in vitro be morally different from the natural way? And if we admit that it isn't, then why should an artificial uterus bother anyone?

Likewise with death: dozens of horrible diseases that used to be fatal are now easy to manage. We've been battling the Grim Reaper for thousands of years, and bit by bit we've been forcing it to cede ground. Why does it horrify us to imagine victory? Isn't that the whole reason we're in the fight?

One key toward understanding our visceral revulsion for Frankenstein-type stories could be found in the status we assign to corpses. Once dead, a body becomes an object. And as an object, it's too easy to turn it into a tool. Under these terms, a reanimated corpse is the ultimate transgression of personhood: the result of someone's choice to force personhood onto inert matter. Birth/Rebirth places this transgression in the context of the deepest grief known to humans: a mother who loses a child. It's understandable that the mother would spend a very long time refusing to believe that the body she formed from her own is now an object. The irony in this film is that performing the forbidden science of reanimation requires exploiting other people's bodies as objects to extract ingredients from.

Perhaps it is that distancing effect that explains some people's objection to artificial means of conception. To take living matter and steer it into a desired outcome may feel too much like a technique of manufacture, like a step in an assembly line. At the minimum, it forces us to acknowledge that the pedestal we've placed mothers on is unjustified. Giving life, just like losing it, is a messy, dirty, sometimes icky affair. For some unlucky mothers, a totally natural childbirth suffices as its own horror movie. Likewise, some deaths are honestly hilarious. There was no inherent reason to film The Pod Generation as comedy and Birth/Rebirth as horror; one could easily imagine the reverse scenario. This life is both funny and terrifying. From beginning to end.

Nerd Coefficient

The Pod Generation: 5/10.

Birth/Rebirth: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.