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How Margaret Atwood predicted America’s future in The Handmaid’s Tale

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Jean Hannah Edelstein
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Control of women’s bodies is tightening across the US, drawing sinister comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale. Stylist looks at the disturbing parallels with Atwood’s Gilead.

“If you return to your country of origin, would you be persecuted on the basis of you being a woman?”

On the bank of a dark river, a Canadian customs official speaks these words to a woman who is lying on the ground, drenched in freezing river water, clutching a baby. She has just completed a harrowing near-death journey across the border, and this is part of the script that the officer must recite in order for her to seek refuge in Canada. The woman nods, shivering and frantic. “Do you wish to claim asylum?” the guard asks.

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This is fiction, by the way. The scene I’m describing features in the opening episode of the third series of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s based on a novel, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985, not real-life events. And yet persecution on the basis of sex is already the reality for millions of American women, who are denied access to basic healthcare. I’m talking, of course, about abortion.  

According to federal law, it’s legal. But numerous officials in conservative parts of the country are fighting hard not just to take away women’s agency over their own bodies, but to make it criminal. 

Atwood wrote a piece for The Guardian in 2012 stating that she didn’t envision her novel as a fantasy. She was not writing of anything that had not already happened in some place or time, nor technology that had yet to be invented. Atwood was not surprised that the novel had sold millions of copies since its release. In the UK, she wrote, “the reaction [to the book] was along the lines of, ‘Jolly good yarn’. In the US, however – and despite a dismissive review in the New York Times by Mary McCarthy – it was more likely to be: ‘How long have we got?’” In 2019, as the third series of the novel’s adaptation arrives on our screens, women in America are watching the show and thinking, ‘Well, here we are’. 

Margaret Atwood drew on reality for her novel

Abortion was legalised in the US in 1973, as a result of the supreme court case Roe vs Wade – or at least it was in principle. The American anti-abortion movement was not a new phenomenon, but neither did it have a deep historic precedent. Dr Fran Bigman, who studies the history of abortion in literature and film, explains: “Abortion was not considered criminal in the US up until the 19th century. In 1920, states started passing bans for many reasons, including fear about the declining birth rate among whites, male doctors ambitious to be in charge of pregnancy, and a belief that women were made to be mothers.

“Women used to take pills not for ‘abortion’, but to cure ‘menstrual blockage’, and they often called this ‘putting me right’ or ‘bringing me round’. Their own words make it clear that they thought of their actions not necessarily – or not just – as the end of a pregnancy, but as a return to their healthy selves: a cure, not a crime.”  

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Roe vs Wade was brought by activist lawyers on behalf of a young woman in Texas, known as Jane Roe, who wanted who wanted a legal abortion.

The supreme court found that the 14th amendment to the constitution – the document that is meant to be at the core of US democracy – guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion on the grounds of it being a private decision. Even then, there were caveats: first trimester abortions could be freely pursued; second trimester ones were harder to get; third trimester only in the case of a threat to the mother’s life. But while the case was a watershed in terms of American abortion rights, it far from guaranteed women equal access to abortion. In the intervening 46 years, countless attempts have been made through courts and through state legislation to limit American women’s right to decide whether or not they want to give birth. 

Abortion provision is managed on a state-by-state basis, and varies widely, depending on who you are, how much money you have, and where you live. In New York State, where I am, recent legislation means you can now get an abortion at any point during pregnancy. There are no time limits and there are few rules requiring a woman to justify her choice. The law here is designed for women to be trusted.

But this is the exception, not the rule: in many parts of America, abortion is de facto banned through draconian limitations placed on clinics that make it impossible to provide these essential healthcare services. And these bans disproportionately affect people who are already oppressed in America, in particular women of colour. Abortion activist Renee Bracey Sherman wrote in 2016 that “[Abortion clinic] closures are particularly concentrated in the South where more than half of black Americans reside.

Despite anti-choice activists repeating the myth that most abortion clinics are set up in predominantly black communities, fewer than one in 10 are actually in communities with a majority of people of color.” 

Anti-abortion activists call themselves the ‘pro-life’ movement, but I think that’s just one of their lies, which is why I have started calling them what they are: supporters of forced birth. 

In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood’s theocracy speaks of their devotion to “traditional values”; real-life American theocrats, who believe that God has blessed the election of Donald Trump, tend to use the phrase “family values”. The forced-birth movement is deeply grounded in American churches: dominated by evangelical Christians, as well as the American Catholic Church, who strive to enshrine their religious values in the US government despite the fact that the constitution also dictates the importance of the separation of church and state.

At the heart of the movement is the belief that life begins at conception, rendering the body of a pregnant woman a vessel – or, as one Virginia Republican wrote in 2014, a “host”. At the heart of the movement is also their desire to control women, our sexuality, and our bodies. 

Protests against the Trump administration in Philadelphia 

Yes, that does sound like the Republic of Gilead, Atwood’s fictional (well, fictional-ish) society in which fertile women are reduced from full humans to baby factories. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to design this wretched place: Canadian Atwood simply looked south of the border.

It was bad in 1985, and it’s bad today. With the election of Trump, the forced-birth movement has gained new traction, not least because of Trump’s repeated false assertions that full-term babies are being aborted at nine months of pregnancy. I wonder if even in her wildest imaginings Atwood envisioned just how bad it would get: as of last month, Alabama’s new law bans all abortions except in cases where there is a severe risk to a mother’s life. Missouri’s new legislation is a bit more roundabout, but the institution of new requirements mean the only remaining clinic in the state that performs abortions is likely to be forced to close. 

Civil liberties lawyers are keen to challenge these laws and there is constant litigation, but that’s kind of the point: forced-birth activists are keen to battle abortion through the court system all the way up to the supreme court. This has been the case since Roe vs Wade, but they’re especially hopeful that the constitutional right to abortion will now be overturned thanks to Trump packing the court with conservative justices, notably Brett Kavanaugh, whose lack of respect for women was witnessed around the world during his confirmation hearing. 

Elisabeth Moss stars in the adaptation of Atwood’s novel

A dangerous precedent

Such is the influence of the people who wish to make abortion a moral issue rather than a medical procedure that they have come to control the narrative. This is extremely dangerous. When the Alabama law passed, for example, many pro-choice politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, cited the fact that the law did not even make exceptions for rape and incest. This was certainly inhumane. But the whole law is inhumane. Expressing the idea that even an extreme law should have exceptions for pregnancy caused by violence shows a tacit acceptance of the narrative that some abortions are more justified than others. 

And I say this having realised that, until recently, I was among them. I too had been persuaded someone else’s abortion might be my business. But then I was pregnant myself: a situation that I longed for and which was, until the birth of my baby, profoundly miserable. 

As I spent months throwing up blood in the morning before work, I considered that this longed-for pregnancy which I found barely tolerable would be abject torture, and nothing less, if I did not want to be pregnant.

Taking these choices away from women is at the core of fascist male dominance in The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s also at the core of the vision of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their supporters. And it must be noted that many of those supporters are white women – like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy, the American patriarchy cannot continue without the complicity of the 52% of white women who voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

I feel more frightened than ever to live in America. It is not extreme to say that limitations on abortion rights may be the first step on the slippery slope to a government that doesn’t grant women bodily autonomy when it comes to the choice to have a baby, and doesn’t care about women or their children. 

Already we see this in politicians’ disregard for the children who are born from the pregnancies that they insist must continue, their insistence that there should be no federal mandates that they be given healthcare or access to childcare, not to mention homes or adequate education or even free lunches. We see it in their refusal to take action on gun control when dozens of schoolchildren die from gun violence. We particularly see it in their disregard for children who have been separated from their parents and die at the US-Mexico border. No longer foetuses, their lives no longer seem to matter – certainly to matter less, say, than the foetuses of teenage girls who cross the border illegally and are not allowed to seek abortions. In 2017, Brett Kavanaugh, then an appellate court judge, expressed the opinion that a 17-year-old illegal immigrant should be forced to bring her pregnancy to term rather than access the abortion she requested. 

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Can we follow the lead of The Handmaid’s Tale and look to the north to save us? Not really. 

As Sarah Sahagian wrote earlier this year in The Establishment, Canada is not set up to support a wave of ‘abortion tourism’ – it’s not even set up to provide adequate access to abortion for Canadians. “On average, over 650,000 abortions occur in the United States each year,” writes Sahagian. “It’s unlikely Canada, with a total of 55 clinics, could make a significant dent in that number, but it would increase wait times for people living in Canada.”

Though the legality of abortion in Canada feels more secure – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requires everyone in his party to run on a pro-choice platform – many Canadian women, especially those living in rural areas, struggle to access abortion through the public healthcare system, and many can’t afford the cost to get them privately. Canada is better than Gilead, sure, but according to Sahagian, “the idea of Canada as a feminist utopia where getting an abortion is as easy as buying milk is a misconception”.

Protesters against Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK

What is the way forward for America, then, for those of us who care about the human rights of women? Abortion will be a key issue in the next election – perhaps the deciding one – and the varying approaches of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination further exemplifies how those on the left struggle to agree on what legal abortion means. Frontrunner Bernie Sanders states that he is unequivocally pro-choice but in the past endorsed a Democratic candidate who was anti-abortion. And former vice president Joe Biden walked back his support for the Hyde amendment – which limits federal funding for abortions to cases of rape, incest or in threat to the life of a woman – only after he came under harsh criticism from fellow presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

There’s a temptation for residents of states with more liberal abortion policies to throw up our hands at the backwardness of states like Alabama and Missouri. But we cannot afford to be complacent. Yamani Hernandez, executive director of National Network of Abortion Funds, sees reason to be optimistic. “Abortion advocates are educating their communities about the effects of each restriction passed, and that each and every one is an unnecessary burden to someone who needs an abortion. There’s been a swell of support for abortion access, and we’re ready to organise people into action.”

We must be wholehearted in our engagement in the fight to preserve reproductive rights for all women. Whether or not we personally need to take advantage of the options, we must fight the tide that is pushing us towards Gilead. If they take away our rights to decide what happens in the most private realms of our bodies, it will just be the beginning.

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Images: Getty Images, Rex Features, Courtesy of Hulu

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Jean Hannah Edelstein

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