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Orphan Black: An Allegory For Reproductive Rights

Orphan Black’s third season is about to premiere, taking viewers directly into the tangled web of medical and human ethics that is a world in which human cloning is possible and two organizations are warring over the future of the human race. Embedded within the narrative are complicated questions about the implications of human cloning, particularly with respect to when and whether it can be ethical, and the series also explores individual identity and what it means to be a genetic copy of a living organism.

It’s also about reproductive rights and complicated questions of reproductive autonomy, however, issues that are inescapable in a climate where these subjects are striking very close to home, particularly in the United States. Viewers in the US are facing down growing attacks on reproductive autonomy at the same time that they’re dealing with laws against using stem cell lines (based on cloned material) based on outdated, scaremongering beliefs about the nature of the soul and the source of such material. In the US, fans of the programme are looking not just at a possible future in a nation with extremely advanced medical science, but also a highly theoretical series of questions about the nature of reproductive control.

The female clones, introduced in the first season, are not self-aware—each woman thinks she’s genetically unique and has lived a normal life, and it’s only after she meets her counterparts that she understands the truth. This denial of autonomy about their own past is compounded with denial of control over their own future: With the exception of Sarah, all of the clones are apparently sterile, representing the end of the line, unable to pass on their own genetic material.

That doesn’t mean that no one has control over that material, though. According to tags embedded in their very DNA, the women are ‘owned’ by the organization that created them, and this extends to any children they may produce. In this sense, Orphan Black is the extreme realization of a world in which women are utterly deprived of reproductive autonomy. They are unable to have children on their own, and if assisted reproductive technology or other tools are used, their children don’t belong to them and they theoretically don’t control their fate—Orphan Black introduces the notion of owning and controlling individual human beings.

In this sense, the show hearkens back to the era of slavery, in which slave owners didn’t just control the human beings they had purchased, but their children as well; though the concepts of advanced genetics and the thought of copyrighting biological organisms would have been abstract that the time, those concepts essentially underlay slavery. As in the days of slavery, Orphan Black also visualises a world heavily dominated by eugenics and selective genetic manipulation to create the ‘perfect’ representation of a human being. While slave owners may have instituted elaborate ‘breeding’ programs that involved forcing men and women alike to give up their reproductive autonomy or face severe consequences, the organisations of Orphan Black skip that phase by altering DNA directly.

It’s impossible to explore themes about the creation of human life without discussing the nature of that creation and how children are born in the first place. This is often elided in discussions about the programme, with critics focusing on the ethics of cloning, but not the sense of bodily autonomy and the right to control your own genetics. The show itself does not shy away from these issues; eugenics and the desire to pursue perfection is very heavily stressed and explored from a number of perspectives. In the context of the show, the clones represent a complex multi-year experiment, pitting human autonomy against scientific control of women’s lives and bodies.

This becomes particularly apparent when male clones are introduced in the second season. These figures have a key difference from their female counterparts, though: While the women are not aware of their status, the men are self-aware, and know they’re genetic copies. Even on Orphan Black, men are given more knowledge, control, and choices when it comes to their own bodies. As individuals, the male clones know they’re taken from the same genetic pool, but their awareness gives them a greater sense of freedom and choice—unlike the women, they don’t have to find their destinies by stumbling in the dark.

Within Orphan Black, the conflicted attitudes about cloning are also deep insights into the way we view reproductive rights, as they are about ideals and concepts, rather than human lives and bodies. Instead of being about the autonomy of the clones themselves and their lived experiences—and the fact that they have individual lived experiences as distinct people with differing epigenetics and environmental experiences, regardless as to their DNA—the war between competing organisations appears to be more one of ideology, with the clones as chess pieces.

One sees clones as the future of humanity, embodying ancient eugenicist ideals about human nature and genetics. The other views them as abominations, hearkening back to conservative Christian attitudes seen particularly in North America and especially in the United States, where people with a poor understanding of science often end up in positions in authority when it comes to setting policy and dominating social conversations. As goes society, so goes Orphan Black, with those opposed to cloning dredging up outdated and inaccurate information about the nature of genetics and humanity, all while dodging the reality of the fact that human beings are at stake.

Orphan Black represents one of the few programmes on North American broadcast at the moment that’s delving into, and challenging, notions about reproductive rights and autonomy. In a programme plagued with bodily injustice, viewers are forced to ask themselves what justice looks like—and how far we should go to obtain it in the real world.