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There's a nation with extreme fertility and population problems. Someone suggested the government could induce certain candidates to have a great number of children in a single pregnancy... at the cost of their lives, a bit like the Axlotl tanks of Dune.

Fiction Premise

This would be a secret program, involving magic relatable to near-future biohacking; drugs, minor genetic alterations, etc. Surrogacy has not been invented yet, which is why this is being considered. Medical tech is mostly at the level of pre 20th century, so I don't expect the mothers to survive. My assumption was 99.99% of candidates would die, or all would, with maybe 1 in 10,000 surviving. Note that the idea is a small percentage of the population is used for this secret process.

Facts and Research

It's a dark idea that fits the setting, but I wanted to ask how logical it is. The world record is decuplets, 10 kids at once, made surprisingly recently. I also heard that it's pretty dangerous to have multiple twins, so I wondered if that'd be a problem. The candidate may also need to fatten up before the ritual, since a human can apparently only absorb 6,000 calories per day, and babies need about 500 calories per day in the 3rd trimester--so the candidate could barely eat enough to feed 12 babies.

How much is possible?

To make the sacrificing of candidates logical, they'd probably need to have at least 12+ kids. The arctic fox can have litters of 20 pups, so I wondered if that was possible. The original suggestion was having over 30 kids, to make the ritual extreme and terrifying--though I don't know how feasible that could be.

With that in mind, how much is possible, and how much is feasible?

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  • $\begingroup$ The decuplet story is probably not true. The record number of surviving babies in a multiple birth is nine. The biggest problems in a multiple pregnancy are premature delivery and low birth weight. The fetuses don't just keep on growing and kill their mother, but the mother's body usually expels them before that. $\endgroup$
    – Cloudberry
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 21:53

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I daresay not feasible, or your candidates would likely survive, as you need babies instead of dead babies.

The main problem of quantity is volume, there is only as much inside a woman's body, the uterus displaces internal organs as babies grow and expands towards navel area, making a woman's lower body protrude forward (correct my English here please). There are obvious limits on how hard it can expand, as uterus is made of muscle tissue, and you need a woman to remain stable during at least the second trimester of pregnancy in order for the babies to survive after being born somehow. This in turn raises a quality problem, meaning that a woman with those babies in has to remain alive and pretty much healthy (as far as it goes) until giving birth, but that can be performed with Caesarean, leaving the mother largely unharmed and kids also unharmed. In order for your mothers to die while giving birth, you want the normal process instead, but with this many offspring you plan them to have there is a huge chance that you lose some in the process, effectively nullifying the positive outcome, and lose the mother on top.

The better way would be that those mothers you want to produce kids would instead turn into living Axlotl tanks, or rather, "delivering machines", and are kept top secret rather than dying, after all, whatever modifications you want to apply to them are expensive, and it's quite better to try reaping the rewards more than once instead of having them make children once and perish. This will make the number of babies they want with 3-6 pregnancy cycles (not sure about second pregnancy of each mother involved, they differ unpredictably), each producing 6-10 kids per mother, and assuming 50% of mothers could complete this program, this would make more children over ten years than initially proposed program. Anyway you have to consult doctors to start this, they would tell you an expanded version of this.

About the number, I say 10 is about the most living kids a mother can carry until they could survive, even if she's to die after delivering them. Anything more and she dies before they would be able to live outside the womb.

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I rather doubt it is feasible to even get to 12, and were I advising this fictional government, say we can reliably induce sextuplet birth, with recruits that give birth every 12 months (if the babies are nursed by others); and the ultimate impact on the population would be greater.

In three years, she would give birth to 18 children; 50% more than birthing 12 and dying, and we could have far more mother-recruits than if they die in pregnancy. The children themselves would likely have a higher survival rate as well.

In terms of addressing a population problem, giving birth to 18 children in three years (and surviving to continue working in some other capacity), the mother will have more impact on the problem than if she gave birth to just 12 children in 9 months and died; removing herself from the workforce.

Their reproductive systems and body may be shot after 3 rounds, but they would largely still be alive, still capable of sexual activity and work as a productive member of society.

The women would volunteer for the same reasons both men and women volunteer for the military, risking life and limb for their country. They will be celebrated as heroes. Perhaps offer these mothers a lifetime pension.

I think as a writer it would be easier for me to justify a woman risking her life for her country, as opposed to a woman intentionally committing suicide for her country. And the numbers willing to take that risk, understanding the dire consequences if nobody does, would be exponentially larger than the number willing to commit suicide, just to double the births per pregnancy. Surviving sextuplet birth is relatively certain; particularly by caesarean.

A work of fiction should not introduce a "necessary" mechanism that reasonably intelligent people can see is not really necessary at all, and is just gratuitously violent and lethal.

A dire population problem is a valid premise; killing people to solve your population problem is not a valid premise. Likewise, losing people in the fight to preserve the human species is a valid premise; wasting people in this fight on unnecessary suicide missions is not.

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  • $\begingroup$ You've got a good basic premise here. However, Caesarean sections are dangerous without modern technology, and the question indicates primarily pre-20th century: is sanitation even widespread yet? It's one thing to cut the mother open and save any babies; that was feasible even in Roman times. Doing that without killing the mother, mostly via blood loss or infection, is much harder, and they need weeks if not months to recover after the surgery. Also, premature labor becomes far more likely (and earlier) with triplets/etc., and preterm infants have major health risks even with modern care. $\endgroup$
    – Palarran
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 21:40
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I would raise the question of how those babies are to be raised.

Humans are what's known as a pretty "altricial" species as they go - meaning a species whose young need a lot of care before they can sustain themselves independently. This trait is often associated with learning potential and adult intelligence, which makes some sense if you figure that intelligence requires learning, and that learning requires a safe a protected space that allows one to make mistakes and focus on things other than immediate survival.

I think Alison Gopnik is an interesting author in terms of tying those concepts together to understand human nature - she points out how humans become "self-sufficient" in terms of producing as many calories as they consume at much more advanced ages than chimpanzees do, and that humans are the only known species that has not only the mother caring for children, but also the father, and also grandparents, and also random other community members. Apparently you have species with some of those, like many birds have both parents care for their offspring, orcas have post-menopausal grandmothers caring for offspring, other species have various members of the community caring for offspring, but only humans do all of it.

So all that to say... If you do have your technology inducing 12 babies in a pregnancy at the cost of the mother's life with pre-20th century technology, how are those babies growing to reproductive age? Or even to toddlerhood? Are we looking at a 12:1 baby to adult ratio? Say milk isn't an issue because you have enough cows - that's still 12 babies the father needs to feed, with only two hands and so many bottles and a certain incompressible human need for sleep. Is he getting help? You talk about "government" so the "government" could help but it would still need people to assign to that job. So who's helping, other fathers with 12 babies to feed? Or women who haven't had babies yet, and if so - why haven't they, if we're so desperate for babies that we're inducing 12tuplets? Say the father gets 3 other women to help for a 3:1 baby to adult ratio, couldn't you have had better results by having those three women and the dead mother of 12 have 3 babies each instead, resulting in as many babies and 1 more adult to care for them?

That's an issue with comparing our litter numbers to Arctic foxes and other mammals - we're not Arctic foxes and there might be a reason for that.

But the weirdest thing even there is that... People can have 12 babies and more, with pre-20th century technology, and have them grow to adulthood, just fine! Better than Arctic foxes or any mammal that's at equilibrium with its environment, regardless of litter size. Just combine decent nutrition & hygiene with a total lack of birth control. I saw the numbers myself looking at my family's genealogy and looking for birth records in the late 19th century in my country and going "this family had this baby, but when's the marriage record? Let's look the previous year. Ah, another baby! And the previous year. And the previous year. And previous. Ok no baby here, maybe look at the previous year's marriage record". It didn't fail, and yes you ended up with 12 babies or so. And the craziest thing is, the death records in the margins indicated all those babies lived long and fruitful lives (obviously I'm not claiming the mortality rate was zero, just saying it's weird all those I looked up lived, the survival rate had to be really high). It must have been an insane time in that country's history. Point being, humans are fertile as hell. That's another point Alison Gopnik makes actually - we have babies more frequently than chimpanzees do, which kind of suggests dark things about the infant mortality rate when we had no birth control and our population growth wasn't insanely high.

So I'm having a bit of a suspension of disbelief issue with your very premise, that there could ever be a situation where it's better for the population growth rate to have 12 babies in one pregnancy at the cost of the mother's life instead of having 12 babies one at a time over the whole span of a mother's fertility, with said mother contributing to childcare over that time period more than she could if she were dead. And also each baby being born at term, reaping the full benefits of human pregnancy (which there are also fun things to read on - look up the article "why pregnancy is a biological war between mother and baby" to see just how greedy human babies are in the womb, and why by extension it might be a huge handicap to be one of 12 fighting in there). Yes, at most times in human history families didn't have 12 children surviving to adulthood because there was a high mortality rate - but any time in human history that wasn't great for 12 sequential children would be a million times worse for 12tuplets. 12tuplets are barely sustainable now. I say "barely sustainable" - your own research says the pregnancy itself isn't doable, I'm saying on the "taking care of them after" front, which is even more important because it's harder to handwave. We don't know how bodies work, I can see someone imagining 12 babies coming out of there. But I think it's easier for most (especially anyone with experience with babies) to picture one adult with 12 screaming babies with no outside help and quickly see the impossibility of that scenario.

On the medical/pregnancy side though honestly I'm wondering a bit at how glib you are in associating "pre-20th century tech" with "so don't expect the mother to survive". Forget about the mother, if you knew anything about prematurity and pre-20th century tech you would know there was no way for the babies to survive. So why this focus on the mother's death.

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