The Agony of the Pre-Persons: Philip K. Dick's Attack on Abortion
Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels and short stories have provided bountiful material for TV and film adaption, including Blade Runner and the Total Recall movies. More recently Amazon’s TV adaption of his alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle has attracted a lot of attention. Since he often confronts serious religious and ethical issues, his tales sometimes make for discomfiting reading. One example is his short story “The Pre-Persons,” first published in 1974, only one year after the Roe v Wade Supreme Court ruling. Though by no means politically conservative or religiously Judeo-Christian, Dick had more insight into the ethical sophistry used to justify abortion on demand than the Court. He also foresaw its brutalizing impact on society and personality.
Predictably, this anti-abortion story made him the target of hostility from advocates of abortion. By Dick’s own account, he received an especially vituperative reaction from “Joanna Russ, who wrote me the nastiest letter I’ve ever received,” threatening him with physical violence, along with “unsigned hate mail, some of it not from individuals but from organizations promoting abortion on demand.” Dick’s response: “For the pre-person’s sake I am not sorry.” Furthermore, in his defense he quoted the famous words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In the story Dick acknowledged appreciatively the role of Christianity in opposing abortion throughout history, even though he himself was not a believer. The entire story and some of Dick’s comments about it can be read here.
The story’s dystopian future world extrapolates from Roe v Wade to a society in which children under twelve also face extermination when their parents decide to do away with them. Initially it focuses on a boy named Walter, cowering in the bushes while an abortion truck cruises his suburban neighborhood looking for kids whose parents have consigned them to elimination or who lack the requisite identification proving they are wanted by their parents. If the driver apprehends such kids on the street, they are taken to a facility compared to a “dog pound,” where their biological parents or new adoptive parents have thirty days to claim them before they meet their end.
Contemplating the spectacle of women enjoying the right to get rid of their own offspring, one man muses, “Where did the motherly virtues go to... when mothers especially protected what was small and weak and helpless?” He sees this as a possible harbinger of the extinction of the whole human race. Another man’s son is actually picked up for missing the necessary ID, so his father decides to join his son and the group of children in the back of the abortion truck. He claims that he can no longer do higher math and so should also be eliminated (Personhood in this society is established by one’s ability to comprehend higher math). He says, “Either they ought to kill all of us or none of us. But not divide along these bureaucratic arbitrary lines.”
Other brilliant and believable details flesh out the story: the bureaucratic peace officer charged with the task of apprehending stray kids, who spouts regulations and demands proper IDs from bewildered small children; the terrified but violently angry children fantasizing about blowing up the abortion truck; the antagonism between adults embittered by conflict over abortion and infanticide. Dick vividly envisions what a morally desensitized world might do to the souls of its members. Eventually one man’s decision to join the children in the abortion truck creates something of a short-lived mass media fracas. In that regard Dick does not appear as prescient, since he did not reckon on the mass media putting greater effort into suppressing and whitewashing such incidents than into reporting them.
“The Pre-Persons” may prove to be as prophetic as the hedonists contemptuous of parenthood depicted in Huxley’s novel Brave New World. Philip K. Dick grasped very well the logic of abortion and could not turn his eyes away from the artificiality of drawing a line of demarcation for meaningful human life at the moment of birth. A society that treats the lives of the unborn as worthless aside from their market value may very well decide one day to broaden the category of those who do not merit protection. Probably Dick would not have been very surprised by the Planned Parenthood scandal, since he understood very well the dehumanizing effects of abortion on demand long before the ramifications had clearly materialized.
Most impressive of all, in showing the terror and despair of children facing elimination, Dick gave a voice to the unborn who cannot express any audible horror at their own demise. One character in his story considers their plight: “How could they defend themselves? Who would speak for them?” Dick himself managed to do just that.