the pearl

Wanted: San Francisco, California, USA


[For an elderly woman living in one of the safer cities in this country, Sarah Engels is protected by strong security. The two women on either side of her have frisked me, gone through my bag, and stand at attention, pistols on their hips. "You can't be too careful," one of them said to me, before we began the interview. "You'd think after all this, no one would bother, but..."

Sarah is small and frail-looking, with perfectly trimmed white hair and a surprisingly strong handshake.]

Before we begin, I want to make it absolutely certain — I love babies.

Why would I doubt that?

[She chuckles. sadly.]

You would be surprised. The letters, the calls, the shouts in my face... No one seems to remember what I did before this all happened. No one ever seems to remember why I did what I did.

Before the war, I was one of the top fertility experts in the country — the top. Women from all over came to see me, because I was the one doctor who would do as much as I could to give them a child. My clinic had one of the highest success rates for IVF, and our research into inherited genetic disorders was making excellent progress. We wanted everyone who came to us to leave with a healthy and happy baby — and I worked hard to achieve that dream. For thousands of families.

When...when it started, we didn't realize it at first. It was in the news, of course, but our families didn't want to talk about it. Not when the ultrasound showed twins, or the embryos were viable, or they held their daughter for the first time.

But it started creeping in. A couple of patients asking how long our freezers would run if the city ran out of power. A few more stopping their treatments because they were moving up North. Then...they started asking for alternatives.


It started with stopping treatments. Couples I knew — couples that had been trying for years — suddenly just not coming in. We tried to get them back in, tried to find out what had happened, but they wouldn't answer our calls.

Then I was asked for an abortion.

You had never performed one?

Oh don't get me wrong — I have always been pro-choice. But I was a fertility specialist! All of my patients wanted pregnancies!

We did offer abortions at the practice, of course. Even with the best genetic testing and selection, there were still a few non-viable cases we had to take care of, but when I had just told them that they were having a healthy baby girl and then to get asked that?

[She pauses, putting her hand on her chest.]

I hadn't realised how bad it had become.

What happened with that couple?

I did what I had to do. I couldn't talk them out of it — and I tried, I really did — but it's their decision, and I had to stand by it.

Afterwards, I was sitting there with Ellen, my head nurse, and we talked about it. And she told me things she had heard from the other nurses. Things that...

[She pauses again.]

When were you born?

I'm 36.

So you don't remember what it was like. Before Roe v. Wade.


My internship started in 1970. I was such an innocent girl — spoiled, really. If any of my friends got into "trouble", they were escorted by their parents to friendly doctors who stayed after office hours, or went to Switzerland for an extended skiing trip. None of them ever had bicycle spokes or knitting needles or other implements shoved up them. None of them ever drank too much gin or scalded themselves in hot baths or fell down the stairs. And none of them ever bled out on a hospital bed while I frantically tried to patch them up.

Ellen...she became a nurse around the same time too. She remembered. And she said there had been cases. Recent cases. Cases where there were waiting periods, or mandatory ultrasounds, or you couldn't have one when you could hear the fetal heartbeat. This country had spent years making abortion more and more difficult to obtain, and now there were women who were going back to bicycle spokes and falling down the stairs.

"It's going to get worse," she said. "No one's going to want a baby now."

[She pauses again, looking at the wall to her right. A single portrait hangs there, a smiling woman standing in front of a makeshift clinic in a jungle.]

You know, she had spent most of the 80s in South East Asia helping mothers? Just another old hippie, trying to find herself. She knew what needed to be done, and I... I didn't want to believe it, but she was right.

What needed to be done?

People weren't going to stop having sex. But no one would want to bring a child into this world. We needed to make sure that anyone — anyone — could get an abortion safely.

It wasn't going to be easy. Especially during the Panic. Not only did we have everyone trying to go North, we had looters, and the women who came to us... We couldn't tell them no.

You couldn't?

Don't you remember the stories? That church in Kansas? The hospital in New York? The I-95? What kind of world would I be bringing these children into?

So we worked. And worked. As hospitals closed, as more and more people flowed into the city from down South, Ellen and I gave up on going home. Sleeping in one of the consultation rooms when we could.

And was over. The government stepped in.

Did you stop working?

No, no, there were still plenty who needed me. But the Army needed me as well.

You fought?

[She laughs, shaking her head.] Oh no, no. But a lot of women did. And they needed our support as well.

We spent weeks tracking down every single dose of mifepristone we could get our hands on. We packed condoms in every pack and if any woman wanted an IUD, we offered them. We also offered midwifery training.


Naturally. Even if they weren't getting pregnant, there were still people who were, and the rate of death during childbirth was rising. We needed people who were trained to deal with as many problems as they could.

Ellen and I still worked out of our office, even as VA Day came. We had beaten the zombies at our door, but now we had new problems.

And what were those?

Population. World War Z had wiped out so many cities, so many people. Not just the zombies, but the winters, the lack of resources...and now we needed all the people we could get. Or so they said.


The protesters. The politicians. It was like it was the 90s again, fire-bombs and shots fired in the culture wars. [She sighs.] The government had our backs for awhile — DeStRes did the math and realised that one woman capable of working was worth much more than that same woman incapacitated by pregnancy complications — but as things got better, it got more difficult.

And then...

The San Jose Incident.

Is that what they're calling it now? [She snorts.] Makes it sound like a faux pas or something unimportant. Call it exactly what it was — the San Jose Massacre.

[She stops, looking at the photo on the wall again.]

She stood up to them, you know? She stood in front of the other people in the waiting room, the patients, the nurses, the children, defending them. She told them that if they wanted more death, she would fight them until the very end. And she did.

[She closes her eyes for a few seconds.]

It's why the girls are here. I don't know what they expect us to do — we're certainly not going to turn into Russia. Women still need us.

So I'm still working. Because I want every baby to be a wanted baby.

Just like I did before.

[I'm ushered out shortly after that by the two bodyguards. As I leave, I see the protestors standing outside, holding up their signs.

They glare at me as I walk back to the station.]

This World War Z story was written by Kate Bolin. If you liked it, there's plenty more at And you can feedback her at