‘Big Mother Is Watching’: ‘Embryo Patrol’ Illuminates the Dystopian Aftermath of Overturning Roe

A prophetic short story written in 1981 suggests what might happen in our immediate future, should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.

Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, Richard Nixon and then-Senator George Murphy in San Clemente, Calif., in 1970. Through the 1980s, Republican leaders such as Ronald Reagan won in elections thanks to the anti-abortion movement. Picryl / Creative Commons)

It was 1981 and Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. The country was swinging to the right, and Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, was already under attack.

I was a New York City writer and a young mother and was surprised one day to be invited to Washington, D.C., to speak to an officer from the National Organization for Women (NOW). It turned out that someone at the organization had noticed my satires in Penthouse magazine. They suggested that I write one on abortion. They wanted to reach men. Flattered and inspired, I went home and wrote “Embryo Patrol.” Penthouse published it in October 1981.

About a month ago, I got an email through my author’s website, from a stranger, a retired physician who lives on Cape Cod. He had kept the Penthouse with Embryo Patrol all these 41 years and would take it out to reread it when abortion came up. He wrote to tell me it should be republished now. I scarcely remembered the piece, and asked if he could copy and fax it to me. Then I read a short story so dark and grim I could scarcely believe I had written it.

I posited a grim future in 1994, which obviously did not come to pass. But the story suggests what might happen in our immediate future. Forty-one years after writing this piece, it seems curiously prophetic.

Embryo Patrol

The lobby smelled of artificial roses. At one end was a colored poster, too large for indoor display. It depicted an enormous face: the face of a woman of about 40, with a quiet smile, strong teeth, and handsome features. “BIG MOTHER IS WATCHING” ran the caption below it.  

Walker Smith crooked his middle finger at the poster—but not before putting his hand in his pocket. Since the development of the microphoto cell, you never knew where they had cameras; since the election of ’92, you never knew when they’d be watching.

Walker opened the door to his apartment. His wife, Tina, looked frightened.

“What is it?” Walker asked. “What happened?”

Tina gestured with her hand, and he saw two strangers sitting in the living room, a man and a woman. “Who are they?” he mouthed.

“I went to the Center on my way home from work today,” she whispered.

He nodded, heart sinking. Big Mother Centers had sprung up throughout the United States in response to the Canning-Dunn Law of ’89, which ruled that every female of childbearing age must take a monthly pregnancy test. Every pregnant woman was now under government surveillance, because every pre-born human being was under government protection.

The phrase “pre-born human being” was ‘newspeak’ for embryo or fetus—a stunning use of rhetoric, for some 60 percent of embryos miscarry naturally. To call all embryos “pre-born human beings” was like calling all little girls “pre-mothers.”

A gray-haired woman was addressing Walker now. “My name is Captain Gatling of the Embryo Patrol. It is my job to inform you that your wife is glorious.” She gave Tina a look of false piety and love. “Glorious” was ‘newspeak’ for pregnant. Tina did not look glorious; she looked white and strained.

To call all embryos “pre-born human beings” was like calling all little girls “pre-mothers.”

“Congratulations, darling,” he told his wife, but his mouth was dry.

“I understand this was not a planned pregnancy,” said Captain Gatling.

Penthouse, October 1981. (Amazon)

 Walker said, “We already have two children, you know—and Tina’s health…”

“I know all about her health,” snapped Captain Gatling. “That’s one reason I’m here. Her alleged heart trouble. That quack who tells her she shouldn’t have any more children.” She pursed her lips contemptuously. “You should have thought of Tina’s health three weeks ago,” Captain Gatling said coldly. “You know the law.”

Walker nodded. Abortion was in every case a felony. No exceptions were granted for victims of incest, rape or ill health. All known abortions were prosecuted as murders. “I know the law,” said Walker. 

“Good,” said Captain Gatling. “Now I’d like you to meet Henry Weston, the pre-born human being’s government appointed attorney.”


“As you probably know,” said the lawyer, “the Human Life Act of the early ’80s ruled that for legal purposes, personhood begins with conception. The fertilized egg is considered an individual, entitled to all of the privileges of any American citizen. I am here to represent my client’s legal rights.”

“Your client is smaller than this match-tip right now,” said Tina. She held up a match, then lit a cigarette. “Your client is no more than a cluster of cells.”

“My client is a pre-born human being,” corrected Henry Weston, reaching for her cigarette and snapping it in two. “No more tobacco for you, young lady. For the duration of your child’s residence in utero, you are required to keep the environment healthy. If you pollute it with alcohol, coffee or drugs, you’ll be heavily fined. And if Big Mother sees you doing anything risky—carrying packages, engaging in active sports—you’ll be charged with reckless behavior, with intent to kill.”

He stood up. Captain Gatling stood up, too.  “Enjoy your glory,” she said to Tina. Then they all murmured, “Big Mother is watching.” It was the common mode of greeting or farewell, but it struck Walker Smith as especially vile that day.

He rejoined Tina on the couch. “I’ll have to leave my job by New Year’s,” Tina said. She was a vice president of a local bank. Women were no longer allowed to work past their sixth month of pregnancy or allowed to resume working until their child was four years old.

“Your job?” said Walker. “That’s the least of it. What about your health?”

“Your concern’s a little late,” said Tina. “If it weren’t for you insisting…” But her tone was tender, not angry. 

“Don’t blame me,” said Walker. “Blame Big Mother. When I was young, all the girls used pills and IUDs. No one I knew got pregnant.”

Now, however, these simple and reliable forms of contraception had been outlawed: IUDs because they prevented the implantation of the pre-born human being in the uterus wall, and most forms of birth control pills because they contained chemicals that made the uterine lining reject the pre-born human being. In 1994, most people did not remember that a mere 15 years earlier, abortion had been a legal, safe procedure, freely chosen by a million and a half American women a year.

“Walker,” said Tina. “I’m frightened. What are we going to do?”


The tablet was pale green against Tina’s palm. It had cost $1,500. Drugs to terminate pregnancy were usually available if you could pay the price. Now, once again, only the lower economic groups were forced to bear unwanted babies.

Tina swallowed down the tablet with champagne. “To life,” said Walker. “Yours!”

“Now it’s my own again,” said Tina. “My life.” The couple smiled at each other.

Captain Gatling and Henry Weston burst into the apartment.  “You’re both under arrest.”

“We haven’t done anything wrong!” cried Tina.

“Oh, no? Henry, hand me that Geiger counter.” She advanced with the Geiger counter and passed it over Tina’s blouse. It began ticking loudly. “There’s my proof. Proof of intent to murder.”

“I don’t understand,” said Walker.

“The pill was phony. We made sure you got a radioactive tracer instead. We’ve got state’s evidence against you now.”

“You mean, I’ll still be pregnant?” asked Tina.

“That’s right.”

“And you’ve given me a dose of radioactivity?”

“You took it yourself.”

“But it could damage the embryo.”

“That is a possibility,” said Captain Gatling.

 Tina screamed, “No!”

“Mrs. Smith, calm down. Every year tens of thousands of badly deformed babies are born. Many are known to be seriously defective from early in the pregnancy. The mothers carry them to term knowing they’re bringing a child into the world who’s blind and deaf or who has no spine. Those mothers show respect for human life. That’s what you have to learn.”

Six months later, Tina Smith went into labor prematurely, during which she had a heart attack and died. By performing an emergency Cesarean, the doctors managed to rescue the baby. She weighed 2.7 pounds and was born with teeth embedded in her skull where her ears should have been.

Captain Gatling was of two minds about the outcome. She was sorry that the baby was deformed, of course, and sorrier that it might not survive. On the other hand, people like Tina and Walker deserved to be punished. 

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Catherine Hiller is the author of five novels; Skin, a short story collection; and Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir. Her new novel, Cybill Unbound, about the sexual adventures of an older woman, will be published on Valentine's Day, 2023.