“The Pre-Persons” was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in October 1974. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 275–296.
Walter is playing king of the mountain and sees the white abortion truck come to pick someone up. He hides into the blackberry bushes, fearing that the truck is coming for him. His mother comes to find him and promises him that he will not be aborted, and he is over twelve anyway. The new law clarifies that once you are twelve you have a soul. Walter protests that he felt he always had a soul, leading his mother to clarify that this is a legal question. Walter still worries about his friend, who was aborted two years ago. His mother mentions that “pre-persons” at the Country Facility have thirty days to be adopted. Walter knows better and realizes that his friend was “put to sleep.” The test Congress had decided that the ability to master algebra was the test for having a soul. Walter tells his mother that he would like to firebomb one of those County Facilities, when all the kids are gone.
Other children tell Walter that the abortion truck had come for Earl Fleishhacker. His parents called the truck but were too coward to stay when the truck arrived. Walter restates his hope to firebomb the clinic. The others point out the flaw in his plan. Walter will be reprogrammed or put in a mental institution. Worse, kids could be killed in the firebombing or the Clinic or the truck. Walter compares the trucks to the trucks that take dogs to the pound.
Walter wonders why it was so easy for adults to “snuff out” things that are weaker than them. The horror of the system falls down on the most vulnerable. He dreams of an organization of snuffers who will kill the doctors performing abortions.
Ferris, the driver of an abortion truck stops a boy (Tim) on the street asking for his D-card, which proves that his parents filed a formal desire to keep him. Unable to produce the card, the boy is put into the truck. The boy’s father comes and explains to Ferris that they could not afford the $90 (now $500) to file the Desirability Card. He has ninety days to file the form and pay the fee or the boy will be put to sleep as a stray. In the truck Tim meets Earl, who tells Tim that his parents took away his D-card. Tim’s father (Ed) continues to argue with Ferris about the morality of the law that allows the state to kill children who are deemed unwanted. He demands to go to the County Facility with his son. He claims to not know algebra.
Walter is still worried about being forced into the abortion truck, especially after the horrifying pick-up of the day. Ian, Walter’s father, drinking heavily blames the system on a group of “‘castrating females,” who began abortions as a type of war against men. He suggest leaving for British Columbia with Walter, starting a new life farming. Ian tells his wife, Cynthia, of these plans. He will mail her checks to keep her afloat. His bitterness toward Cynthia develops and he mentions to Walter that “boobs” are quickly becoming obsolete. Maybe they can streamline the pre-person abortion by sending boobs to the County Facilities and the children will die of malnutrition. He accuses Cynthia of being part of a system that has not just a hatred for the helpless, but a hatred for all things that grow.
Tim, Ed, Earl, and another boy are travelling in the back of the abortion truck. Ed, Tim’s father, says that he plans to expose the corruption in the system by forcing them to “abort” him for not knowing algebra. If that is the case, they will need to “snuff” everyone. He thinks that the real problem with the law is that it imposes an arbitrary line between those who can be legally killed and those who cannot. The driver orders them to stop talking because they are distracting him.
At the County Facility, Ferris is questioned about bringing a 30 year old man. His death would be the equivalent of murder. Ed insists that he should be killed because he does not have a soul and wants to be locked up with the other “pre-persons.” Trying to contact someone who knows them, they call Ian Best. Best answers drunk and when he hears they are holding Ed (who is a Stanford graduate with a major in mathematics) he threatens the County Facility with a media attention. Ian Best frees Ed and the three children from the “pound.” On the way home they talk about how nice it is to be free and their plans to escape to Vancouver Island. Unfortunately, the adults know that such plans are not possible because they are all trapped within the system.
Philip K. Dick’s anti-Malthusian writing began early. Even his relatively minor novel Dr. Futurity cast down on the morality of a society obsessed with the preservation of its resources at the expense of its humanism. But while Dr. Futurity considered a society that imagined life beyond 30 as odious, the totalitarian and cynical culture of “The Pre-Persons” imagined that the target of systematic pruning would be the children. The legal foundation for this system is the arbitrary line of algebraic knowledge (usually acquired around age 12). At twelve, people are deemed to have a soul and are allowed to live, but prior to his, children without the proper papers can be send to a County Facility until they are claimed by their biological parents or adopted. Most, it seems, are aborted after a month. The story is awash in euphemisms about the murder of these children, including “destroyed” or “put to sleep.” Cleary, Dick was horrified by the then recent passage legalization of abortion with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. He confessed to having been criticized heavily for the story’s barely hidden anti-abortion argument.
The story goes beyond abortion, however, and challenges several aspects of the Malthusian perspective. The abortion policy in the story is clearly weighed against the working classes. It is most likely the poor who cannot afford to register their child as desired (the 36-W Form costs $90 and not registering a desired child can cost $500 in fines). It also, clearly targets the young. By the 1960s and the 1970s, Dick seemed to realize that whatever celebration of youthfulness was reflected in Dr. Futurity was insignificant compared to the real power held by the old. As one character, challenging the law by declaring himself soul-less because he does not know algebra, states: “There is [. . .] in the land, a hatred by the old for the youth, a hatred and a fear.” (290) The ageism runs throughout the story, suggested most deeply in the use of dehumanizing language to describe the “unwanted” children. While it was the adults who ruined the environment forcing a Malthusian crisis, it is the children who are singled out for punishment. “You know the world is running out of everything, energy and apple juice and bread; we’ve got to keep the population down, and the embolisms form the Pill make it impossible.” (284–285) To make the entire experience more palatable, it is modeled on another unjust system that had been internalized as necessary and normal, the collection and killing of stray animals. Young, unattached (legally and bureaucratically) children are deemed “strays.” At several points the County Facility is openly described as a “pound.” The trucks that carry the children to the County Facilities remind others of animal control vehicles. “You know they even take dogs too? And cats; you can see the truch for that only about once a month. The pound truck it’s called. Otherwise it’s the game; they put them in a big chamber and suck the air out of their lungs and they die. They’d do that even to animals! Little animals.” (279) In this story, Dick suggests that the Malthusian logic extends to a hatred of anything that grows, the ultimate in institutional ageism. And while individuals want children (there is a clear shortage of children reflected by the wealthy searching for children to adopt) and there is a shortage of young people, the institution, committed to zero population growth, labors on in its horrified deeds.
Although Malthusian currents run strong in our world, it is clear that the majority of advocates for zero population growth prefer the wide distribution of birth control over wide-spread abortions, or forced abortion. To make his horrific description of the systematic murder of children realized, Dick had to make birth control laughably ineffective and pregnancies a playful disruption. At one point in the story a couple decides to have an abortion, which first requires the removal of an already failing I.U.D., They look forward to taking home the embryo “in a bottle or sprayed with special luminous paint so it glows in the dark like a night light.” (285)
I can understand why feminists were upset with this story. While it is reasonable to have principled opposition to abortion, the story “The Pre-Persons” is unfortunately misogynist at several points. The people picked up by the abortion truck are boys. Walter’s father, Ian Best, and Ed Gantro all dream of escaping to British Columbia, even though they know it is not really possible. Why? They will need permission from their wives, which they know they will not get. What starts as the oppression of the state ends up being the oppression of empowered women. In this story Dick parroted many horrible anti-feminist assumptions. One of the most important of these is that the goal of feminism is ultimately to oppress men. Ian, Walter’s father, blames the “castrating females” for a war against anything that grows, that began with their demand for abortion rights. It grew from that to a total power over life and death of all weaker people. The heroes of the story are men (this is common in Dick’s writings, but given the context of this story’s argument is it more conspicuous). I do not think the negative opinions about this story derive only from his position on abortion, but on his presentation of feminism as an effort by women to dominate men. The story could have made its point without this misogyny.
Wikipedia page for “The Pre-Persons.”
Fairly well-known clip on overpopulation
Older clip advocating population control