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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Planting the Seed: Fertility Then and Now

by Hilary Doda
May 2, 2002
Edited by Drew Meger  

Reproduction is one of the most basic functions of living beings, the capacity to conceive and bear young a vital function in the survival of a species which is usually taken for granted, brought into view only when it is being directly fulfilled (pregnancy) or denied (birth control). A society's power rests with those who control the reproductive abilities of its members, and civilizations rise and fall under the pressures of population expansions and declines.

Female characters, unless they deliberately opt out of fertility through various magical or surgical methods, are not immune to the powerful hormonal cycles which chart a woman's daily life, but the matter of pregnancy itself can be a difficult one to fit into a campaign or world. It's tempting to turn towards the soap opera style of plotline in order to work fertility into an adventurer's life, but there are a number of different directions which can be taken, avoiding entirely the clicheés of perpetual morning sickness or relationship angst.

A Woman's Lot:

Understanding the basics of a concept is a vital first step before we can begin manipulating it to fit our own ends. It would be simple enough to create statistics and probabilities out of whole cloth, but grounding the natural rhythms of human life in at least a vestige of reality can help to create a truly realistic feel to a game setting and society. Modern western woman has a plethora of options available to her to cope with her fertility, be she trying to conceive or avoid childbirth altogether, and while all methods have side effects, some more extreme (hemorrhage and death) than others (unreleased sexual urges), her reproductive system is, at least theoretically, under her own control.

The ability to successfully bear children is intimately and intrinsically tied in with our concept of successful femaleness. While there are and have always been those who shun childrearing, it is only recently that such a lifestyle choice has been granted acknowledgement of validity, and even then, the acceptance is tenuous.

There are few adult women who have not had to face The Question from well-meaning friends, relations and/or parents, and even for those who intend to someday raise a family, living with the cultural assumption that a woman is somehow incomplete until she sacrifices freedom for offspring can be distinctly uncomfortable.

Women who wish to fulfill this cultural and often biological imperative can be stunned to learn of problems that crop up along the way, and a commonly reported psychological issue in women dealing with infertility is a sense of inadequacy, a feeling of being somehow "un-female," stemming from our heavy emphasis on motherhood as a definition of the female existence.

Settings which embrace the family structure as a basic concept - anything except the most cynical cyberpunk futures, really - will contain some vestiges of this attitude, The drive to produce more people for a civilization is as strong at the bottom - more hands to plow the fields and more cannon fodder for the front lines - as at the top - a larger tax base means more tribute to the laird, or a larger available pool from which to run essential social services.

On a darker level, the more children who are born, the more material the back alley organ sellers and Soylent Green manufacturers have to work with without arousing too much suspicion. A society which has reached its maximum sustainable population may attempt a crackdown, but attempting to reverse cultural pressures - as seen with the not-exactly-functional one-child policy in modern China - is a very difficult task.

The Counting Game:

In the year 2000, the fertility rate for American women of childbearing age (15 to 44) was calculated at 65 births for every 1,000 women. While many girls are hitting puberty at the ages of ten or eleven, and are theoretically capable of conceiving at this point, it is extremely difficult for a child so young to carry a baby to term, as the body has not yet finished developing into its adult state, and serious complications from childbirth are very common among the youngest mothers.

A new study from the journal Human Reproduction has found that women under the age of 27, all other things being equal and using no methods of contraception, have about a 50% chance of conceiving during each menstrual cycle in which they had sex at their most fertile time (about two days before ovulation). This drops to somewhere around 40% for women between the ages of 27 and 34, and at the age of 35 that chance drops to less than 30%. After the age of 35, as well, risks increase dramatically.

This time, the risk is less to herself than to the child she carries - disabilities such as Down's Syndrome become much more prevalent as the mother's age advances. Studies vary widely on other attendant risks, some attributing multiple early pregnancies to lowered risk of breast cancer, others blaming various birth control methods for diseases and disorders of many kinds.

The birth rate is declining rapidly in some areas of the world, blamed variously on women waiting too long before attempting to conceive in efforts to further their careers before the inevitable setbacks attendant with "the mommy track," hormones present in the diet, tobacco smoking habits, and so on. The birth rate is rising elsewhere, treatments resulting in multiple births, religions forbidding the use of any sort of family planning techniques, the unavailability of reliable forms of birth control or abortion forcing women to bear many more children than they otherwise would have chosen.

Historically, studies suggest, women hit puberty a few years later than girls do now, menses setting in at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, rather than the years from nine to twelve as is seen so often now. This ensured, in some respects, that girls did not begin their careers as baby machines until their bodies were ready to handle the stresses involved. Despite that, many young mothers died in childbed, or saw most, if not all, of their multitudes of children die in infancy and toddlerhood. Puerperal fever, a bacterial infection that often set in after birth, was one of the leading causes of death for these young women, seconded by postpartum bleeding and hemorrhage.

Granted, in settings where access to magical healing is prevalent, the dangers of childbirth begin to shrink, but for traveling adventurers or small-town girls, the risks remain as deadly as they were before. Thrud the Barbarian may have quite a way with the ladies, but who can tell whether the children he sired along the road to adventure survived, or are buried with their mothers along the very paths which he recently walked?

Future Imperfect:

Modern day fertility treatments, including but not limited to in-vitro, drugs to promote ovulation, artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, ovum donation and so on, have given the blessing of parenthood to many who would, not twenty years ago, been unable to have children of their own.

The technologies are advancing more rapidly now than ever before, animal cloning becoming reality, the pros and cons of genetically designed children discussed openly, and concepts such as the artificial womb taken seriously by people outside of the walls of a science fiction convention. What effect will this artificialization of the conception and birth process have on humanity's understanding of genetic relations and parenthood?

It has been posited, mostly for comedic effect, that scientific developments may enable even males to carry a fetus to something resembling term. It's not too much of a stretch to design, from there, a setting where the lines between male and female have blurred to a certain extent, each being able to perform the reproductive functions of the other, creating, in effect, an artificially hermaphroditic society.

It's interesting to project our current gender-aligned stereotypes into such a universe; would all those who bear children be then seen as the weaker of the species, the fertilizers seen as stronger, no matter the organs of their birth?

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The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

Other columns at RPGnet

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