Roe v. Wade: why The Handmaid’s Tale comparisons are actually damaging to our understanding of the real-life consequences

Roe v Wade repealed: why The Handmaid’s Tale comparisons are actually damaging to our understanding of the real-life consequences

As the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, we must remember that what we’re living through is not dystopia, but real life.

“What kind of dystopia are we living in?” read many of the tweets that flooded social media following the news that the US’s landmark abortion legislation, Roe v Wade – which protects a woman’s right to have an abortion through the first trimester of pregnancy – had been overturned by the Supreme Court.

President Joe Biden has warned that repealing this legislation would be a huge change in American law that could imperil a wide range of other civil rights, such as marriage laws and transgender rights.

Despite months of speculation, many of us have been left panicked, enraged, confused and scared by the news. How could a developed country make such an extreme decision?

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The Handmaid’s Tale, along with #MyBodyMyChoice and “Do Something” immediately began to trend on Twitter.

“I can’t believe we’re seeing The Handmaid’s Tale playing out IRL,” one tweet read.

“It’s like we’re living in Gilead!” they cried, referencing the state from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the Emmy award-winning TV adaptation of which is currently running on Channel 4 and stars Elisabeth Moss.

“Silly me. I thought The Handmaid’s Tale was a dystopian novel, not a political road map,” one tweet read.

With so many leading feminists and activists, including Roxane Gay, Bonnie Greer and Judy Chicago, warning what a terrifying time it is to be a woman, it’s no wonder we find ourselves clinging to a pop culture example of a world where people are forced to give birth, where the decision to have and carry a child is taken completely from their hands.

But therein also lies a problem. 

Abortion rights: leaked documents show US Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade
A leak from the US Supreme Court recently revealed the court drafted a majority opinion overturning Roe v Wade

We’re fully aware of the language we use and how it can help us to understand the world around us. But just as male violence isn’t a “shadow pandemic” and stalking isn’t an “epidemic”, the assault on reproductive rights isn’t “dystopian”. It’s a very real political consequence that we’re living through in 2022.

When we liken those repercussions to fiction we absolve those in power of their role and position ourselves as powerless to change it.

There isn’t an all-powerful author constructing our reality, but real people. Politicians and judges and civilians.

While the right to safe and unrestricted reproductive healthcare shouldn’t still require fighting for, it does. And while we know how the story of Offred, Atwood’s lead character in The Handmaid’s Tale, and her counterparts ends, this is a historic moment that we’re living through right now that requires action.

Activists, such as New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are warning that this is only the beginning: “The [Supreme] Court “isn’t just coming for abortion,” Ocasio-Cortez said Twitter on 3 May, “They’re coming for the right to privacy Roe rests on, which includes gay marriage and civil rights.”

American women of colour will undoubtedly bear the brunt of further abortion restrictions. Black and Hispanic women get abortions at higher rates than their peers and experience higher levels of poverty that may hinder their ability to travel out of state.

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In the UK, we’ve already faced the battle to make at-home abortions permanent for women in England, a fight that was thankfully won.

The reality is undoubtedly uncomfortable and hard to dwell on, but it’s important to be realistic as well as accurate about the threats we’re facing.

It’s never really been as simple as “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice”. But as writer Leila Cohen put it: “If it was about babies, we’d have excellent and free universal maternal care. You wouldn’t be charged a cent to give birth, no matter how complicated your delivery was. If it was about babies, we’d have months and months of parental leave, for everyone.”

It may be an emotionally and politically complex issue, and the news this week will have been hard for many of us to absorb. But what we can do is recognise that our freedoms are under threat and use our power to vote against the arbitrators of these systems, both in the US and in the UK.

Activists and campaigners have vowed to fight against the decision. “We know you may be feeling a lot of things right now — hurt, anger, confusion. Whatever you feel is OK. We’re here with you — and we’ll never stop fighting for you,” wrote Planned Parenthood in a statement following the decision.

Unlike dystopian stories, the end of the abortion rights discourse hasn’t yet been written. We can only hope that it’s a better one. 

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