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What Happens When the First Baby Is Born on the Moon?
In his new book The Day It Finally Happens, journalist Mike Pearl imagines future scenarios that seem absurd now, but will one day be a (complicated) reality. Here’s what might happen the day a baby is born on the moon.
“You may leave the delivery room at any time,” Nurse Collins kept telling her. “It’s your right.”
But of course Alexandria couldn’t just leave the delivery room. That made no sense. Sure, she could get up easily enough. That was the nice thing about the moon’s light gravity, one-sixth the strength of Earth’s. Tasks like getting out of a hospital bed while in labor are a whole lot easier on the moon. But where would she go?
It wouldn’t help to give birth in the hallway of Moon Base Hispaniola’s medical center, since Collins would still be there, ready with all her forms. She and Francisco could dart out the automatic doors of the lobby, and then what? Birth the baby themselves in the middle of Concourse A? Were they supposed to hop on the tram back to their residential block, fill the bathtub and perform a water birth? That would have been a terrible idea for a million reasons, only one of which is that it would use up a week’s worth of water rations.
Nope, she was stranded, and completely at the mercy of whatever these consent forms said. And they were long. According to the fine print in the Hispaniola Residential Compact, giving birth was considered elective medical care — never mind that once you’re pregnant, there’s nothing elective about giving birth. An abortion, unsurprisingly, would have been covered.
Alexandria had medical insurance, of course, through her employer. And they had never specifically mentioned anything about not covering the costs associated with delivery. Her brother Marco, a lawyer, had assured her that giving birth was technically legal on the moon. But the Hispaniola council had issued a non-binding resolution stating their preference that she abort.
Alexandria felt the baby move. It was almost time. It took all her strength not to instinctively push.
“They’re making an example of us,” Francisco said. “They can’t make giving birth illegal, but they’ve found a loophole. They’re making it too expensive.”
“That’s not true,” said Marco. “This was codified years ago, before her employer ever put together these insurance policies. They should have told you more clearly. You can get them to cover this.”
“What am I supposed to do? The baby’s coming!” Alexandria exclaimed.
The whole situation made no sense. How can you prevent the creation of another mouth to feed on the moon? They’d promised before she left that the Residential Compact enshrined all the same rights as the U.S. Constitution. But it looks like they built in a big penalty for giving birth: crippling medical debt.
As troubling as it would obviously be, making all moon residents sign a contract barring them from reproducing might be a smart move for at least the first few decades.
“Just give me the forms! I’ll sign. I’ll sign.”
Nurse Collins handed Alexandria the clipboard, and she signed at the bottom. “And initial here,” Collins said. She did. “And here,” she added. Collins nodded to a gynecologist standing just outside the door, and she entered. A hospital administrator followed close behind with a very small camera.
“It’s for the media. They’ll want to see this back on Earth,” the administrator said.
“Well well well,” said the doctor. “Looks like we’re making history today! Who’s excited?”
Alexandria smiled without opening her mouth.
For most of my life, I naively imagined that if the moon were ever colonized, the colonizers would be benevolent pioneers, there on a mission of research and discovery subsidized by some union of nations working together for the betterment of humanity. But government organizations like the China National Space Administration and NASA are increasingly handing over the reins of space exploration to private companies like China’s OneSpace, along with American companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace, both of which are formalizing plans for the first permanent bases on the moon in the first half of this century.
So when a moon base finally exists, residents will almost certainly be outside any country’s social safety net, but in theory, still subject to laws. There aren’t very many people who’ve thought about how this will work in detail, but American space lawyer Jim Dunstan has been pondering it for quite a while. His 1991 paper “From Flag Burnings to Bearing Arms to States Rights: Will the Bill of Rights Survive a Trip to the Moon?” gets right to the heart of it, at least from an American perspective. For example, will Americans on the moon really have the right to bear arms? Possibly, the paper says, though maybe strutting around with holstered guns can be forbidden, as long as there are enough firearms locked away somewhere in case a militia ever needs to be formed — to fight off an invading army of moon people, I suppose.
So what about reproductive rights on the moon? America’s lower courts in the Roe v. Wade case argued that the Ninth Amendment ensures a right to privacy that shields women from reproductive interference. Dunstan agreed, stating in his paper: “The Ninth Amendment has been read to contain as a fundamental right the right to procreation and freedom of one’s own sexual expression.” He notes that as time goes on, “the essence of the Bill of Rights may be challenged,” but asks, “if one is not free in one’s own bedroom, what is left of freedom?”
Dunstan is now the general counsel for the free-market-centric think tank TechFreedom. When I spoke to him, he offered a more complete legal picture of life on a moon base, and what that might mean for the first moon mom.
When someone’s giving birth on the moon, he said, “That would mean that there would have to be a law that allowed a woman to become pregnant on the moon.” He foresees that before moon residents were allowed to reproduce, either a law or a contract would be put in place that says anyone who can get pregnant would have to take contraceptives, or, that if they became pregnant, they’d agree to abort the fetus.
In his book, Building Habitats on the Moon: Engineering Approaches to Lunar Settlements, Haym Benaroya, an aerospace engineer professor at Rutgers University, writes, “Pregnancies in a low-gravity environment will be very challenging to women and their fetuses.” The long-term effects of being in low gravity have been monitored in Valeri Polyakov, a Russian cosmonaut and medical doctor who was once in space for a record-smashing 14 months straight, and they don’t sound fun for someone already experiencing the joys of childbirth. They include the upward shifting of blood and other body fluids, which can result in a decrease in blood pressure, which can in turn cause blood loss and cell death in the brain, conditions that can lead to headaches, fatigue, sleep disorders, and seizures.
Other effects of time spent in space are all but certain to hamper the development of a healthy fetus. According to Benaroya, bones become less dense and astronauts experience the slowing of biological growth. “Microgravity,” he writes, “results in an annual one to two percent bone loss in astronauts in weight-bearing areas such as the pelvic bones, lunar vertebrae and femoral neck. As bones in the lower body atrophy due to lack of use, upper body skeletal regions grow in density.”
Benaroya also notes that muscles atrophy in low gravity. More to the point, among the residents of the moon who’ll inevitably have to spend a significant amount of any given day performing intense muscle workouts akin to the brutal exercise regimens the residents of the International Space Station are subjected to, there’ll be a very well-grounded fear that a child born and developed in one-sixth gravity will never develop enough muscle mass to atrophy in the first place. That includes the child’s leg muscles, which, it goes without saying, won’t stand much of a chance if the child ever has to fly to Earth, though they might recover with physical therapy. But there are also muscles in the lungs and heart, and we don’t have any way of knowing yet whether these will properly develop.
That concern may sound overly cautious. Why, after all, would heart and lung muscle development be hampered by low gravity if astronauts’ heart and lungs seem to work just fine? But the research we have about animals born and raised in space and returned to Earth give reason for concern. According to a 1994 paper in the journal Advances in Space Research, animals that begin their lives in space are sometimes okay, and sometimes very much not. Pregnant guppies that spent five days on board the Russian spacecraft Cosmos 1514 “tolerated space flight conditions well,” but the paper’s authors noted that the “female allowed to bear young gave birth to 25 normal young and two anomalous and underdeveloped embryos.” Only six of 35 Japanese quail eggs hatched without help after incubation on the Mir space station, but those that did appeared perfectly normal. In fruit flies, researchers noted “a decreased [egg production] rate in females and a shortening of male life.”
It’s easy to imagine someone getting pregnant when it’s possible but still in the “less than ideal” phase.
The paper’s authors also experimented with jellyfish polyps, allowing them to reproduce in space. The results were mixed. Unfortunately for the space polyps, some experienced defects stemming from, ahem, “abnormal development of the graviceptors, the neuromuscular system, or a defect in the integration between these systems in apparently microgravity-sensitive animals.” In case you’re not following the science lingo there, they responded badly to gravity, and had a hard time moving around.
Does this mean a mother can’t have a healthy baby in space? No. It just means we have reason to worry she might not.
Before her baby’s due date, there’s a good chance the mother will have been subjected to long periods of gravity simulation in the hope that the baby will have a better chance of an ideal outcome. “Research has been performed on the utility of artificial hypergravity in countering these effects,” Benaroya wrote in Building Habitats on the Moon. But he thinks that as time goes on, we might give up the ghost in this area and just allow ourselves to transform into creatures of the moon instead of Earthlings. As he put it, “Our lives will be lived on the Moon and beyond. We may need to become prepared to see subsequent generations with less development in their lower bodies.”
All of which is to say it’ll probably be a long time before the lunar community feels comfortable adding a newborn. As troubling as it would obviously be, making all moon residents — male and female — sign a contract barring them from reproducing might be a smart move for at least the first few decades while the lunar base is a hardscrabble outpost.
It stands to reason that the first moon birth won’t happen until the “base” is more of a complete moon community with creature comforts and medical facilities. Even then, live human births would still be a risk that the corporate overlords who’d likely run the outpost wouldn’t be thrilled about. Dunstan told me he can envision animal experiments happening well before that. Still, people love to reproduce, so it’s easy to imagine someone getting pregnant when it’s possible but still in the “less than ideal” phase.
By then, the questions will be much more bureaucratic. Would the moon baby be able to list “moon” as their nationality on forms? In Dunstan’s opinion, no. It’s more likely that whichever country the mother is a citizen of would “make a claim that that the child is a citizen of that nation, because otherwise, you begin to lose your population, and your ability to tax them.” That checks out if you ask me.
If the baby’s parents are American, there wouldn’t be any problem issuing a Social Security number, since that process is already electronic. The time on the birth certificate would be, well, lunar time. But will the moon have clocks and calendars that reflect lunar time intervals? Well, moon “days” are about 27 Earth days long, or arguably — thanks to the complexities of the lunar-terrestrial-solar relationship — about 29 Earth days long, depending how you do your space math. But given our human tendency to carve life into 24-hour cycles, citizens of the moon will almost certainly simplify things by just syncing up with the time on Earth. Most likely, according to Dunstan, “whoever fires up the first computer on the moon base and has to sync it to a clock back on Earth — that would be your time zone.”
But here’s a brain buster: Assuming the baby’s parents would have a lunar mailing address, they might be tempted to put the baby’s lunar address on the birth certificate. That probably wouldn’t be a great idea if the baby might ever move to Earth; it might create proof-of-citizenship issues. Assuming the parents maintain an additional address in their home country, it might be wiser to use that.
But back to the lunar delivery room. What about those astronomical medical bills for using it? They make sense, according to Dunstan. Looking ahead from the present, we can safely assume the moon will follow the American economic model, including the economics of the medical industry. And as Dunstan put it, that implies someone will probably pay for “the most expensive forceps in the galaxy.”