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Mars astronaut
Long-duration missions, like trips to Mars, present new challenges for reproductive rights. (credit: NASA)

Roe v. Wade: the space case

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Roe v. Wade was a landmark case that posited that it is a woman’s right to choose, as protected under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. With the recent overturn of that legal precedent by the US Supreme Court, the entire country is considering the implications for this controversial issue. As an expert in space medicine and a future astronaut, I find myself asking similar questions regarding the implications of this change to the future of human spaceflight. How should the law evolve once we leave the boundaries of Earth? How will nations manage a woman’s right to choose or what can and cannot happen with a woman’s body when that person is living and working in space? And how should the ethics be shaped when this issue surfaces in relation to mission assurance for space flights?

The case of unplanned pregnancies in space has social, political, and ethical challenges to consider.

Consider this hypothetical vignette: Imagine you are traveling on a six-month flight to Mars. The mission is corporate-funded versus by NASA or another government agency. During this flight, a couple decide to forgo the pharmacological supplements prescribed by the medical doctors from Earth which, in theory, control both the urge for and outcome of intercourse. As a result of this decision and their union, the mission must now deal with a pregnancy in space.

This hypothetical situation raises a plethora of questions and issues for consideration.

  • Which rules, if any, guide what happens next, and whose decision is it?
  • Based on what we know of space flight to Mars, what are the implications for the fetus and the woman in this situation considering both allowing it to come to term or choosing to terminate it?
  • As a round trip to Mars is more than a year, what are the implications and further considerations if the birth is successful?

These are serious questions, and they are just the tip of the iceberg for conversation. The science tells us what we can expect from a fetus under these conditions. For example, studies with rodents performed on the International Space Station have shown that premature babies are more common in microgravity than on Earth, and thus most mothers may not be able to carry a child to full term. However, the science also shows that, should the child survive, their survival rate would be higher despite any premature births. Since the period of gestation is very important for the correct formation and function of all the parts of the body, a baby’s first breath is crucial. Thus, in this example, will the air composition wherever the baby’s born be sufficiently close to a baby’s first breath on Earth?

There are more concerns, such as solar flares. This phenomenon surges wave after wave of protons that can cause havoc in the human body. Astronauts today do their best to shield themselves from solar flares by closing themselves up into small spaces until the wave passes. Nevertheless, they still get exposed to the same amount of radiation, just a less harmful set of types of particles. How would such a set of particles influence the development of a baby? How would they influence the migration of neural cells?

The case of unplanned pregnancies in space has social, political, and ethical challenges to consider as well. If, for example, said pregnancy did happen with the gestation challenges highlighted by the research, who would decide whether to terminate or not? Is this a governmental issue? Would the advice of flight surgeons who have not lived or operated in space be sufficient to manage the pregnancy? Does the woman have a right to even choose based on the information available or based on the type of mission they are on? Clearly, this type of case would sound ethical alarms for many people on Earth. Religions, ethics, and politics will form a cacophony of opinions; whose voice will be making the final decision? To my knowledge, no religious text talks about humans born in space, so this is uncharted territory. In addition, state law does not extend into space. So if a woman is resident of a state that abolished the right to choose, but she is living and working “out of state” in a cislunar habitat, does that state have a precedent to enforce their will on her?

Whether nationally or commercially sponsored, the potential for pregnancy in space should be addressed. The potential complications for or against allowing fetal termination or full gestation are significant. Should terrestrial laws, preconceptions, or considerations weigh into a decision that exists beyond the atmosphere? To go further, should a birth actually happen successfully, what then?

  • Does the location have the ability to care for the child successfully?
  • What laws will govern child-care rights and privileges?
  • As a potential first generation “Homo-Spaciens”, what is that child’s nationality? That first birth certificate will more than likely be iconic. But seriously: Will that child ever be able to come to Earth and survive here?

Roe v. Wade is a decision that will have far-reaching implications for humanity going forward. While the debate continues here with terrestrial considerations, it will be very important for various communities to come together and discuss the broader implications for human space flight in the near future. Whether you are a politician, a scientist, a sociologist, or a space enthusiast, you have a voice in that conversation.

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