Separate Sex from Procreation….& End Up in Dystopia?

We progressive Christians like to roll our eyes at the Roman Catholics for their official stance on reproductive issues, such as contraception and reproductive technology. Many of us assume that they are just old-fashioned, or out of it, or have a serious case of wishful thinking, or just don’t know what they’re talking about, seeing as the leadership is made up of unmarried old guys. But I find much to admire in Roman Catholic reproductive ethics, even as I don’t agree with all of it.

Fundamentally, Roman Catholic objection to contraception and reproductive technologies is based on an affirmation of their theology of marriage. They see marriage as having two primary purposes: unitive (two becoming one flesh) and procreative (new life arising literally out of the love between a man and a woman). Contraception and reproductive technologies, Catholic theologians argue, separate these two purposes. To put it most simply, they believe that God created sex and procreation to go together, and anything that separates those two acts (e.g., contraception allows for sex without the possibility of procreation, while reproductive technology allows for procreation without sex) is contrary to God’s intentions for marriage and human families.

The idea that separating sex and procreation is problematic seems quaint and old-fashioned. Actually, given evidence linking contraception to reduced maternal mortality, fewer abortions, and women’s economic empowerment, separating sex and procreation seems like a great thing. Even so, our Catholic brothers and sisters are on to something important. For another perspective on why we should be wary of divorcing sexual activity from reproduction, we need look no farther than some classic dystopian novels.

In fictional dystopian worlds, it is common for sexuality and reproduction to be completely severed from one another. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for example, sex is encouraged as a social activity, even for the young, but children are manufactured in a process designed for efficiency and the propagation of traits that support a consumer society. And in one of my favorite novels, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, birth mothers (girls chosen for this work because of their robust physical health combined with a gentle, unquestioning nature) bear babies who are then matched with unrelated parents who raise them. While a pleasant fondness binds families together, the visceral, fundamental love of parents and children has no place in this culture that values a placid, smooth-running society above all else. Sexuality also has no place in this culture; adolescents begin taking hormone-suppressing pills as soon as they begin showing signs of sexual maturity.

In these and other novels, oppressive governments separate sex and procreation to achieve control. By banishing the volatile, visceral nature of both sexual expression and familial love, the state is able to control not only its citizens, but also what type of citizens it governs. In Brave New World, fetuses are “decanted” using techniques that foster some traits while limiting others, creating babies who are destined at birth to fit into a particular caste and be easily controlled by the state. In The Giver, babies with any kind of physical or intellectual problem that interferes with the community’s predictable patterns of life—even a problem as innocuous as being a poor sleeper—are euthanized. Divorcing reproduction from sex makes it possible for states to determine what kinds of citizens they get to an extent not possible when procreation and sexuality—both unpredictable, emotionally charged endeavors as they occur naturally—are linked. In dystopian novels, we see the potential dangers of this separation, the costs of having unprecedented control over what kinds of babies are born. Children born into dystopian societies may be healthy. They might even be happy in a certain sense, born with traits that make them perfectly suited for whatever role they are meant to have in their society. But they, and their societies, lack much of what makes human life rich and interesting, such as creativity and art and love. As Jonas, the main character in The Giver, learns, even missing out on the harder aspects of life—conflict, pain, sickness, anger—diminishes the human experience.

Today’s reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) are subject to individual choice rather than government coercion. But separating reproduction from unpredictable, volatile human sexuality does allow us to exercise an unprecedented level of control over the procreative process—and over what kind of children we end up with. PGD was developed to free children and families from painful, disabling genetic disorders, such as mine (osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI—a collagen disorder leading to fragile bones and other symptoms). Such conditions are perceived as burdens because of the pain and struggle they can cause. But they are also perceived as burdens because of cultural values that favor such things as robust physical health, intellectual achievement, and earning potential.

Might our technologies that separate sex and procreation tempt us to control reproductive processes in potentially dangerous, even dystopian ways? I’ll be teaching a class April 1 at the University of Hartford that will consider that question, reflecting specifically on The Giver and my book No Easy Choice. If you are local, please join us! The class (a humanities seminar) is free and open to the public. For the rest of you, use the comments here to reflect on what I’ve written, on these or other dystopian novels, and/or your thoughts about whether separating sex and procreation via modern reproductive technologies is or is not a problem.


Why “What Would Jesus Do?” Isn’t Exactly the Right Question
Rethinking Margaret Sanger, Contraception, & How We are All a Moral “Mixed Bag”
Finding Common Ground on Abortion: An Interview with Charles Camosy
Remembering One of My “Cloud of Witnesses”
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Maureen O’Brien

    Dystopian novels are just that — novels — fiction. I suggest you consider reading Angela’s Ashes to gain valuable insight as to what “Roman Catholic Reproductive Ethics” truly are.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Well, yes, but great fiction reveals lots of true stuff about the human condition and I think it’s interesting how frequently novelists illustrate the potential dark side of separating sex from procreation, which allows a level of control over the process that can be used for good or ill. Novelists are good at imagining the potential of that control to be used for ill. When I read The Giver, I can see very clear parallels between how that fictional community bears and raises babies and how we use reproductive technologies. As for RC reproductive ethics, see my response to Y.A. Warren above. I am not a fan.

      • Maureen O’Brien

        The situations in The Giver never existed outside of the mind of the novel’s author. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church has successfully imposed its vision of reproductive “ethics” on entire populations — Ireland for example — and actively seeks to expand this influence. Consider the active opposition to the Affordable Health Care Act here in America. The RCC hierarchy is pro birth not pro life. It seeks to increase its numbers as a means of expanding its power. Most non-clergy (but not all) are working to change this, but it is going to be a long and difficult journey. At present, as far as the RCC is concerned, ethics is not even a minor consideration — we are dealing with an organization that is seeking absolute political, social and economic power.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “Might our technologies that separate sex and procreation tempt us to control reproductive processes in potentially dangerous, even dystopian ways? ” I believe we’ve already reached that stage with the wealthy.

    Please don’t paint the RCC views on conception control with a brush of good conscience.

    The major issues I have with Roman Catholic reproductive dogma is that they are neither consistent nor compassionate. The RCC hierarchy have developed a fantasy of virgin births where mothers suffer no ill physical effects from childbirth, especially those that are too many births, too close together. The magisterium have no idea of the mental issues that accompany years of sleep deprivation when a mother is overtaxed by too many always-needy small children.

    The RCC have no understanding of actual family life, where a father who is on the road to earn a living is not very likely to stay celibate while away from his wife and very able to keep his marriage together, if his wife’s ovulation cycle doesn’t cooperate with her husband’s travel cycles. It was common in Roman Catholic households for the father to have a wife for children and a non-Catholic mistress for sex, as a form of birth control. The sin of adultery was easy to have wiped away in confession.

    The attention placed on abortions by women who the church says are destined for hell, as are their unbaptized children, is of great concern to Roman Catholics, unlike all the “babies” put in IVF freezers. I’m not aware of any teachings of the church that say to adopt rather than create more little “soldiers of Christ.”

    The church also does not speak out so forcefully for all the children murdered in war, nor for the children born through systematic rape, who forever remain unwanted. Access to conception control could go a long way in preventing many atrocities toward children.

    It is my understanding that the RCC even commanded nuns, during a rebellion, in an African country to take contraceptives to prevent pregnancies of nuns, as a result of rape.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Just to be clear, I have big problems with the RC position on reproduction, including contraception and repro tech. You’ve named some of my concerns. In general, I feel that their ideals are just that…ideals that frequently fail to consider how people actually live and marriages actually function and all of that. I also take issue with the language with which they talk about reproductive issues, i.e., calling repro tech “illicit,” which is a terrible word to use about processes that for many people are a bastion of hope for children they desperately want. All that said, though, I think it’s important to recognize that much of the RC position comes from a worthy (if impractical) INTENT and a rather lovely (if, again, impractical) vision of marriage and procreation. I know some faithful and thoughtful Roman Catholics who take these positions very seriously and I can’t discount those people as lacking compassion or smarts. The point of this post specifically was to say that fiction writers have noted that when you separate sex and procreation, that makes it possible for human beings to control reproduction in unprecedented ways, and control has many dark sides to it. While I agree with very little of the RC church’s conclusions about reproduction (what is and isn’t allowed), I think they have some wisdom in terms of cautioning us of the potential down sides of separating sex and procreation. I like where they START, even if I don’t like where they end up, if that makes sense. I like the ideals, I don’t like the practical applications. (In related news, I love this Religious Institute initiative — — to promote contraception, with the support of RC nuns, who repeatedly surprise me with their willingness to be very sensible about reproduction…which sometimes means they are standing in opposition to their own church.)

      • Y. A. Warren

        “I know some faithful and thoughtful Roman Catholics who take these positions very seriously and I can’t discount those people as lacking compassion or smarts.” I agree. It is important that we look at the official doctrines of the magesterium, not at individual Roman Catholics, in making our arguments against the positions of the RCC. The Vatican has hijacked the catholic faith and created a perverse political system.

  • Tim

    I just finished another re-read of That Hideous Strength, where C.S. Lewis compares the rise of a dystopian regime with the staying power of God’s kingdom. Birth control comes into it at one point, although it’s not a major plot line by any means.

  • Grotoff

    It’s not quaint and old-fashioned to argue for the continuing and unsustainable expansion of the human population. It’s disgusting and immoral.

    Thankfully actual Catholics see how full of crap their leadership is and have changed their reproductive choices accordingly. In fact, countries around the world are coming to embrace contraception. Look at Bangladesh’s success, reducing their birthrate to only 2.11 births/women and falling.

  • Jeff

    The sticking point with those dystopias you mention is the negation of choice. Governments control sex and procreation in order to control their people, and individuals get no say in whether or not they will be a brood mare or a stud or anything else. It isn’t the reproductive technology itself that’s the problem; the problem the overbearing authority which uses that technology to control people. In that regard, the RCC meshes pretty darn well. They don’t want a person to have the choice of whether or not to use contraceptives, and they don’t want a person to have the choice of whether or not to get an abortion.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Certainly the governmental aspect of dystopian novels, and how they remove the possibility of choice, is disturbing and different from our current situation in regards to reproductive technology. But if parents are using that technology, freely chosen, to achieve some kind of control over their offspring, is that still troubling? It is to me. Now, I’ve talked to enough parents and read enough people’s stories to believe that for MOST parents, control isn’t a primary motivator. But whether that’s a primary intention or not, reproductive technology allows us to decide whether we want a boy or girl, to pay a poor woman in India (who meets basic criteria of robust health) to bear a child on our behalf, and to screen out embryos with traits that we believe will make our children less likely to achieve in ways valued by our culture. That’s close enough to the dystopian ideals in, say, The Giver, to give me pause.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    Sex has been separated from procreation since the commercial availability of the Pill. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we’re living in a dystopia but I’m sceptical that it’s due to contraceptives and IVF. Not to mention the idea that women deciding when to get knocked up equals tyranny is a bit creepy.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      I never meant to state that we’re actually living in a dystopia. I am also very very pro-contraception, and think the benefits of access to contraception–for individual women and families, for public health–far far outweigh any concerns that the RC church and others have with them, even if I am sympathetic to some (SOME) of the reasons behind their concerns. For me, it’s reproductive technologies like IVF and PGD that pose more significant questions. Even there, I don’t think we’re living in a dystopia. But I do see some eery parallels between how babies are conceived and received in a dystopian novel such as the Giver and how babies are conceived and received (or potentially could be) with repro tech. The purpose of my bringing up dystopia is to suggest that we cast a critical eye on some of the assumptions behind and consequences of technological reproduction.

      • ThisIsTheEnd

        It’s been sometime since I’d read any science fiction (why bother when modern life has caught up), but I think a lot of concern regarding reproductive technologies in science fiction is how it can produce, reproduce (nice pun) or reinforce inequality. So the dystopia was already there in the first place.

  • Amaryllis

    If we’re going to make arguments from fiction, you might be interested in the “Vorkosigan” novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a series set far enough in the future that human have colonized multiple worlds– and not run into any non-human intelligent species, so anything that’s done, is done by Earth-descended humans.

    Bujold has gone a long way toward reclaiming Orwell’s reproductive technology, right down to the use of the slang term “decanted” for a birth from what she calls a “uterine replicator.” The technology is standard throughout the galaxy, but different societies use it in very different ways.

    The most Orwellian of these is the Empire where reproduction is entirely controlled by the state, embryos are created using genetic material from people who may never have met each other, the embryos are further manipulated genetically to achieve a desired result, the resulting babies are assigned to families who have no genetic connection with them, and the whole system is used to further the interests of the ruling clans. Yet even there, parents love the children they raise, adults act with very much more agency than Orwell’s somatized slaves or Lowry’s tranquilized villagers, and there’s a high degree of artistic and technological accomplishment throughout the whole society.

    There’s a world where the only law is an unfettered capitalism. You can get anything you can pay for– slaves, clones, cloned slaves, cloned body parts, extreme genetic manipulations and “designer people.” The rest of the galaxy regards the place with a high degree of loathing, not because they use reproductive technology but because of the way they use it.

    There’s a world inhabited only by men. Children– that is, of course, sons– are created from their father’s sperm mixed with an ovum cloned in a lab. The decanted babies are raised by “registered partners” who might be romantic partners, but also brothers or other relatives, or just-good-friends. Interestingly, on this world childcare and homemaking, even for one’s own children, are compensated; the idea of such a large area of human work not being considered part of the planetary economy completely baffles the inhabitants of Athos… Whether this all strikes you as utopia or dystopia I suppose would depend.

    On most worlds, the uterine replicator functions simply as an assistive technology, freeing women from the physical burdens and risks of pregnancy and labor. Family life otherwise continues much as it always has, in the various permutations that people have come up with. But with a rather higher regard for personal bodily autonomy than has always been the case in Earth history.

    The protagonist of the series was born on a world which due to an accident of history is technologically behind the rest of the galaxy. Early in her pregnancy, his mother was the victim of a chemical warfare attack; the transfer of her damaged fetus to one of the first replicators on the planet saved his life, although he was born with serious disabilities. And it’s that world where mutations, disabilities, and differences of all kinds are feared and loathed; old-fashioned reproduction involved old-fashioned prejudices against anyone who is different.

    Tl;dr– Orwell was far from the last word on the subject; Bujold makes fascinating reading; and it’s not the technology that matters. It’s how you use it.

    • Erp

      I agree on the Vorkosigan books though the Cetaganda Empire (which only shows up closely in one book though it hovers in quite a few others) seems to control most strictly the uppermost caste (the Haut) and prefers to leave the other subjects of the Empire freer to see if any fortunate genetic results show up (it is a very rare and high honor [in the Empire] if a non-Haut’s genetic information is officially taken by the Star Creche). Bujold concentrates on characters and integrates the future technology very well so casual readers sometimes fail to see how much future tech and its ramifications are in her universe. I think “A Civil Campaign” may be the best at covering some of the ramifications of uterine replicators and the relationship of sex and procreation in its understated way; however, it might require “Komarr” before it to provide some of the setup.

      • Amaryllis

        I agree about Cetaganda, but my post was already getting too long; there’s only so much detail I could manage. I didn’t even mention the Quaddies, or the Betan hermaphrodites, or the end-of-life issues brought up in “Cryoburn.” Or the unpleasant history behind why that replicator was on Barrayar in the first place.

        Also agree about “A Civil Campaign,” but I might also mention “Barrayar” for its look at parenting under difficulties.

        Bujold concentrates on characters and integrates the future technology very well so casual readers sometimes fail to see how much future tech and its ramifications are in her universe.
        This, so much. And also, I think, because of the kinds of technology involved: technology affecting “women’s issues” — as if men aren’t just as much affected by birth and sexual relationships and parenthood and illness and death, and the way that society organizes itself around those matters. If it’s not a new kind of FTL drive or fancy weapon, some people aren’t interested.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      I am fascinated! It sounds like this author has aptly dealt with all of the various ethical concerns raised by reproductive technology. I absolutely agree that the issue isn’t the technology itself, but how we use it. Thanks for this!

      • Amaryllis

        You’re welcome! As Erp says above, the books are well worth reading just as good stories, if you ever get the chance.