Retroactive Abortion: Time Travel and the Unborn Baby
By Lauren ColleeAugust 13, 2022
It has been noted before that the Terminator franchise exploits antiabortion sentiment. You don’t need to look very far to find the evidence. In the original Terminator, the year is 2029 and humankind is at war with the robots. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s villain — a roaming, heartless mass of steel and muscle — is sent back in time to 1984 to perform a “retroactive abortion” on the young Sarah Connor, attempting to kill her to prevent her from conceiving the baby that will become the future leader of the successful human revolution against the robots. The bland hero Kyle Reese slips into the time machine after him; he’s been sent by the future humans to protect Sarah from the Terminator and, it turns out, also to impregnate her with the unborn revolutionary leader. At first, there is some ambiguity about which of the two men is the villain. Quickly, though, a moral order is established between them. One man is romantic and procreative, the other destructive. One is flesh and blood, the other an amalgam of machine parts. Kyle Reese is a family man. The Terminator, by contrast, is not a man at all. He’s the abortive suction machine personified: the apocalyptic robot of the future, programmed to destroy human life.
Terminator was released in the United States in 1984 amid a wave of antiabortion violence. In May of that year, two men stormed an Alabama clinic on Mother’s Day and smashed up suction equipment with sledgehammers. In June of the same year, an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, was bombed after-hours, forcing the clinic to relocate. Exactly six months later, on Christmas Day, it was bombed again at its new location — the perpetrators later called it “a gift to Jesus on his birthday.” The following year, 45 percent of abortion clinics in the United States reported receiving a bomb threat.
Like the Terminator himself, the “abortion industry” as evoked by antiabortion rhetoric is a fundamentally inhuman force, programmed to destroy life; it wields a human face only to deceive and manipulate those who seek its services. As an antiabortion text, The Terminator works on two levels. Most obviously, its cyborgian body horror speaks to this narrative: the doctors and administrators who make up “the abortion industry” are figured as barely sentient parts of a nonsentient whole — a machine force posing as human. But as a time-travel movie, The Terminator also works on the level of chronology and temporality, tapping into the more metaphysical sides of antiabortion rhetoric that are centered less around the singular body than around Christian ideas of destiny. And in this sense, it is not unique.
Prior to the 1980s, the loose collection of stories now known as the “time travel genre” wasn’t all that popular, partly because of the difficulty of generating a consistent set of rules that would stand up to the scrutiny of sci-fi fans. As Scott Meslow writes for The Atlantic, two films in the early 1980s changed this, discovering that the key to a successful time travel-film lay in writing one “that’s so much fun mainstream audiences won’t care about consistency.” The first of these was James Cameron’s The Terminator. The second, released a year later, was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Though ostensibly very different, both were stories about a fated conception occurring within a timeline that needed to be protected at all costs.
In Back to the Future, the charismatic hero Marty McFly — a forerunner of Ferris Bueller — has befriended a middle-aged scientist known as “Doc.” When an experiment with Doc’s newly built time machine goes horribly wrong, Marty finds himself trapped in 1955, accidentally intercepts his parents' meeting, and must bring them together to ensure his own conception. Marty’s father, George, is introduced to us as an intensely emasculated figure, while Marty’s mother — Lorraine — is a woman full of regrets. We learn that the two of them met in high school when Lorraine’s father hit George with a car (the young Lorraine subsequently experienced the Florence Nightingale Effect, a phenomenon observed in nurses who fall in love with their incapacitated patients). At the beginning of the film, the older Lorraine refuses to let Marty borrow the car to go on a trip with his girlfriend, apparently terrified that the latter will get pregnant and both will replicate her unhappy fate. “We all make mistakes in life, children,” she says as she gazes at her family over dinner, dead behind the eyes.
In Back to the Future, as in Terminator, varying timelines exist on a scale from unnatural to natural, depending on the extent to which they conform with the values of the nuclear family. Marty’s mother is an unnatural mother (frumpy, regretful, and unaffectionate) and his father is an unnatural father (passive, meek, and afraid). When Marty goes back in time, he doesn’t just correct the timeline, he overcorrects it, changing the circumstances of his parents meeting so that his father saves his mother from sexual assault (a heroic action), rather than merely being hit by her father’s car (a pathetic one). This creates a 1984 in which the values of the nuclear family are restored. Marty gets back “home” to find his father — now a real man — is a successful sci-fi author. His mother, meanwhile, is cheerier and thinner. Apparently content with her life choices, she now welcomes the maternal role, and actively encourages Marty to meet up with his girlfriend Jennifer and procreate.
Though it hides under the guise of chronological experimentation and scientized language, the particular brand of time-travel movie popularized in the early 1980s almost always reinforces the idea of linear Christian chronology, in which “destiny” must remain unknowable to the characters, and even minor deviations from the fated sequence of events can cause catastrophic outcomes. It plays on the idea of a natural timeline of events (the term of a pregnancy) disrupted by technological means (a time machine, a suction machine). In Back to the Future, even Marty’s “overcorrection” of the timeline has to be naturalized and presented as fated: he divulges to a worker in the diner that the worker will run for mayor, he determines the name he will himself be assigned at birth, and he reveals Chuck Berry’s own smash hit to Berry inadvertently. Everything is tied up neatly in looped chains of fate.
On the Christian, pro-life culture site The Collision, which equips Christians to “see where God is at work in today’s culture,” there’s an article on the embedded Christian messaging of time-travel movies. “Time is a part of God’s perfect design for His creation,” the article notes. “Past, present, and future all matter, but must be kept in their proper place. As humans, we do not gain mastery of time by breaking out of it or manipulating it, but by embracing it as God intended” (for example: in Assassin 33 AD, a Christian sci-fi movie released just before Easter in 2020, a group of Muslim extremists co-opt a time machine and attempt to travel back and kill Jesus, wiping out Christianity).
By evoking the idea of a natural chronology in accordance with God’s will, conservative Christian ideology can also easily de-naturalize certain occurrences, framing them as stemming from something like a glitch in the fabric of space-time. When the probable overturning of Roe v. Wade was leaked, progressive reactions largely centered on the idea that the arrow of social progress had swiveled around and now pointed backwards: people noted the irony of the news arriving on the same day as celebrities were donning 18th-century corsets for the Gilded Age–themed Met Gala. Pro-lifers, by contrast, framed the news as a correction of the natural temporal order that had been disrupted with the original Roe v. Wade ruling.
As Jessica Winter points out for The New Yorker, Justice Samuel Alito’s assertion that the right to an abortion is not “deeply rooted” in the nation’s “history and tradition” echoes the widespread idea that in 1973 Roe v. Wade was going against the “natural” historical progression of the law. As Winter notes,
When Roe was decided, a married woman in the United States needed her husband’s permission to get a credit card, something that did not change until 1974. No state outlawed marital rape until 1975. No man was found liable for sexual harassment until 1977. Pregnancy was a fireable offense until 1978.
Notoriously, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw Roe “as an interruption to a more organic, less contentious advance of reproductive rights.” From the beginning, then, Roe was widely framed as something of an anomaly: a temporal malfunction that needed to be corrected. According to this framing, the reversal of Roe is not a swiveling of the temporal arrow so much as a sanctioned temporal intervention to restore a lost sacred timeline.
“Time travel can go in two directions — backward or forward,” explains The Collison’s article on Christian time travel. But outside of the linear framework of God’s will, it starts to move in other directions too — sideways, for example — illuminating worlds that run in parallel with one another. The unborn baby is not just a little collection of cells in space; it is also a temporal phenomenon. The fetus is pure potentiality: not a single entity, but a fork — the moment at which the normal flow of time splits into two possible trajectories.
In 2020, a newly published book assembled all the findings of something called the Turnaway Study. Beginning in 2007, the Turnaway Study followed women recruited from abortion clinics across the United States — some of whom were granted the abortion, and others who had missed the window (often by a single day) and were turned away. The study found that 99 percent of women who received an abortion did not regret their decision, and their physical, mental, relational, and material lives were better than those who had to carry the pregnancy to term. The Turnaway Study was revolutionary in offering data-driven research to support the importance of safe access to abortion. It was also revolutionary in another sense: it introduced a longer temporal dimension into mainstream discussions around abortion, highlighting how minute differences in time could open up alternative realities in the lives of pregnant people, seemingly almost at random.
In an essay for MAP Magazine, the writer Caitlín Doherty describes becoming pregnant too early, in the midst of financial precarity and job insecurity; she wants the pregnancy and simultaneously knows the reality it opens is an impossible one. During the pregnancy, she experiences time as painfully, biologically quantified — the fetus a little ticking clock inside of her. She writes:
I told a friend I had wanted a time-traveling foetus, not a dead one. I wanted my baby inside me again, but for it not to grow any more. Just to live on within me, paused until a moment I could restart the process — when this temporary life was a part of my past. When a child didn’t mean the end of work I had yet to even start. I had never, never, before experienced the harsh continuation of time so brutally. Why wouldn’t it go back?
If relief is the sense of a restored timeline, it is possible to define grief as the sense of a disrupted or schismatic one. Time travel is not only a scientific fantasy, but also an affective experience shaped by desire. In Premonition (2007), a woman is forced to pinball between two alternate realities: one in which her husband has been killed in a car accident, and another in which he is not. In the 2018 series Si no t’hagués conegut (If I Hadn’t Met You), a father loses his family in a car accident and ventures into the realm of alternate realities in search of a happier ending. We feel at home when a timeline feels natural to us; we feel grief — an unheimlich experience — when it doesn’t.
Outside the shadow of the idea of “God’s Plan,” it becomes clear that there is no overarching natural timeline, or unnatural one. The naturalization or denaturalization of timelines is an intensely intimate experience, particular to each of us and likely to vary throughout our lives. A trajectory that feels natural at one point might feel unnatural the next. One person may experience an abortion as a narrowly averted trapdoor on a hellish funfair ride, while another person may experience it as a doorway that is consciously but regretfully bypassed. The tragedy of the overturning of Roe is not only the tragedy of forced pregnancies and preventable deaths, but also the fact that pregnant people everywhere — now obliged to defend the simple fact of the importance of the right to choose — lose, too, the privilege of discussing abortion with attention to its emotional nuances, on their own terms, and finding a community accordingly.
In recent weeks, I have seen many posts online in which people advocating for abortion rights draw on their own origin stories as fetuses to support their stance. I felt, as a result, that I, too, should be looking to the story of my own conception. When they were pregnant with me, my parents booked an appointment at an abortion clinic and later canceled it. My mother gave up a dream promotion to have me and felt blindsided by the experience of suddenly having a child to care for, a feeling that she later recognized as postnatal depression. Like many families — perhaps all families, to some extent — my siblings and I have lived with the ghosts of my parents’ alternate selves. We were lucky in that the ghosts were never violent. We have come to know our parents’ ghost-selves, and to love them.
The personal origin story is a natural place for us to go, philosophically — but ultimately it won’t tell us much beyond the fact that a fetus, if it is carried to term, will often culminate in a person. Even when used to support abortion rights, I suspect that such anecdotes only entrench a false equivalence between a fetus and a life. The growth in my mother’s belly as she calls the abortion clinic is not me; it is just a fork that opens up two timelines, one of which leads to me. This isn’t the most natural version of events; it is simply the one that I happen to exist in, the timeline I call my home.
Antiabortion sentiment may be as strong as ever, but its compatibility with the time-travel genre has waned because the sense of a single timeline no longer makes much sense to audiences. In Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), a mother becomes entangled in a mess of parallel universes, which are each defined by branching alterations in the tree of choices and happenings that is her life. Confronted with inhabiting any of these realities at will, or all of them at the same time, the main character faces metaphysical collapse — an oblique event described analogically as the “cracking of the clay pot.” Parenthood as it interacts with the immigrant experience is felt as a multiplying mess of temporal branches: the schism of the fetus interacts with the schism of a home one has chosen to leave, creating a fractal web of possibilities that haunt the child as much as the parent.
Everything Everywhere All at Once fits within a current of sci-fi cinema that first emerged in the late 1980s, following the publication of two books that popularized chaos theory. James Gleick’s 1987 book Chaos was a large part of the inspiration for the book that would later become the 1993 film Jurassic Park, in which anxieties about reproduction meet the “butterfly effect” model of diverging timelines (also in 1993, Derrida — citing Shakespeare — claimed that “time was out of joint,” and that Western capitalist society continued to be haunted by an alternative Marxist trajectory). A series of movies between the publication of Chaos and the early noughties figured time not as linear or fated but as a random equation constantly in the process of recalculating itself: these include Sliding Doors (1998), Run Lola Run (1998), Me Myself I (1999), and The Butterfly Effect (2004). In the years after The Terminator and Back to the Future, sci-fi was beginning to turn away from the idea of a linear chronology towards an idea of time as inherently schismatic, and an understanding of the present as always endlessly inflected by these schisms.
Jurassic Park is a fantasy of technologically enabled procreation, a biological miracle–turned-nightmare (“Life finds a way”). It opens up a reality in which the whole existence of the human race is figured as only one possible branch out of many in the random evolution of Earth. In one of the worlds depicted in Everything Everywhere, the main character and her daughter are rocks that never evolved into life. Similarly, Jurassic Park looks back to the meteor that eradicated the dinosaurs as an arbitrary origin point: the moment when the first fetal seed of humanity was sown. It spoke to environmental anxieties arising in the early 1990s (were humans, in fact, an evolutionary glitch — was the entire human race just a random interruption of the Jurassic period, living on borrowed geological time?) and political anxieties (had Western society, at some point, made a “wrong turn”?). Ultimately, these are unanswerable questions. The meteor is neither natural nor unnatural, sacred nor profane. It merely is.
The idea of the sacred timeline, in other words, no longer holds much cultural currency, which is perhaps why the pro-life movement now tends to adopt a rhetoric that is fixated on the arbitrary question of at what point a potential life turns into an actual life, thus controlling the temporal scope of the conversation around abortion in order to avoid the more pressing question of what comes next. We spend our days destroying timelines; we could not do otherwise. Each moment we are alive we make a decision that closes down a potentiality. When we consider this, it is obvious that an unborn fetus is made of time more than it is made of space. It is not a small, fragile body that needs to be protected, but a timeline that the pregnant person will have to inhabit. The question is never about a baby in need of a home, and always about which spooling timeline the pregnant person will feel at home in.
Lauren Collee is a writer and PhD candidate in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Featured image: “Terminator in Madame Tussaud London” taken by Daniel Juřena is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. Image has been cropped and adjusted.
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