The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian Fiction or a Blueprint for the Future?

Photo: Fiona

When Hulu announced Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale was being adapted for a TV series, so many people involved refused to call it a feminist story — even though the entire plot centers on a society that has stripped every right away from women. The book’s female characters are forced to take the name of the man who possesses them, changing it as they are passed between men. Their worth is based solely on their ability to produce children, having been turned into “hosts,” or breeding units for the elite. And if you think that terminology originated in Atwood’s head, you’d be wrong — that term wasn’t from the book or show. It was from Rep. Justin Humphrey of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, just last February.

If they can take away our agency over our bodies, the rest doesn’t matter.

Ms. Atwood has stated that nothing in the book is new. Every degradation, every dehumanization is something that has happened, or is currently happening, to women somewhere in the world. And many people were quick to point to the parallels between the dystopian society painted by Atwood decades ago and the vision of a society idealized by many of our most conservative lawmakers.

Case in point: The Republican Administration recently signed an executive order allowing states to deny funding to Planned Parenthood, which will make it difficult for many low-income women to access contraception — an invaluable tool in asserting control over one’s fertility and destiny. (Vice President Pence should have known better; after all, his home state of Indiana is still fighting one of the worst outbreaks of HIV in decades, which was caused in part by defunding a major provider of HIV testing and treatment.) And attacks on access to contraception are just the tip of the iceberg.

But still, this was not really something I was going to write about, until late last month when I was listening to NPR. They talked to a young woman who stated that if Planned Parenthood would “just stop giving abortions,” then they could keep their funding. Although she liked the health care that Planned Parenthood provided, she wondered, “at what cost?

I am going to tell you the cost of not having access to the services Planned Parenthood provides — including contraception, screening for domestic violence, and, yes, abortion.

I have only ever told this story once before. It has been a decade since this incident, and it still haunts me. Details are intentionally left vague, to protect everyone involved.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I had been working at the rural health clinic for a few months. Most of my time was spent learning, getting to know people, doing paperwork, and making small children cry. (For many of them, I was the only white person they had ever seen. Then I would give them vaccinations, which can be even more scary for a kid who has never had them, but less so than the diseases we were hoping to prevent, whose scars could still be seen in the community.) I have talked before about women “falling off a bicycle,” their version of a coat hanger abortion. This was my first experience with that.

A woman came in from one of the poorer villages. When she was told she was pregnant, she burst into tears. The older women took her outside and comforted her. I was confused, because she was married, and babies were nearly always welcomed, but it was a busy day and I didn’t think about it again. Several weeks later, she was back, unconscious, nearly dead. There was nothing we could do. Our hospital director’s wife was amazing. She spoke English well, and was always willing to talk to me about things no one else would. She is the one who told me what happened.

The woman was a second wife. She already had 10 surviving children, and several miscarriages and stillbirths. The last one nearly killed her, and she was terrified of getting pregnant again. The clinic gave her birth control, but when her husband found out, he beat her, so no more of that. When they confirmed her pregnancy, she tried to terminate it by drinking some teas that are supposed to induce miscarriage. That didn’t work, so she went to someone, and they gave her a bicycle spoke. I doubt it was clean, but that wouldn’t matter. I was told that they stabbed her intestines and caused them to rupture. She died of septic shock the day they brought her to us. I held her hand until she took her last breath. I remember the smell. I will never be able to forget it.

That is the world Margaret Atwood created for her characters in The Handmaid’s Tale. For her, it was a cautionary tale, a warning of what could happen if women’s rights were continually stripped away. Unfortunately, it seems like too many of our lawmakers are using that novel as a blueprint. That is the world they want with their executive orders, restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, obstacles in accessing birth control, and even the semi-legality of spousal rape in a surprising number of U.S. states — just like that husband who knew, without a shadow if a doubt, that he was culturally and religiously encouraged to control his wife’s reproduction, by denying her birth control, by beating her, and by raping her until she became pregnant. This vision for women would require they be nothing more than hosts, and the man should have the final say if a woman is to get an abortion, allowing no choice or agency over our own bodies, our own health, our own minds.

If they can take away our right to our most personal areas, our bodies, then we have already lost everything else. Just like that husband who beat and raped his wife, because he felt it was HIS RIGHT, we have lawmakers who trivialize and even perpetuate the kind of violence women endure worldwide. Just listen to their comments: rape is God’s willthey are powerful enough to grab a woman’s genitalia, and so many more that there would be no room to talk about anything else. These kinds of comments play a key role in the dehumanization of women, encouraging a culture of systemic violence against us, and limit our control of our destinies. If they can take away our agency over our bodies, the rest doesn’t matter.

This has been mulling around in the back of my mind, because I was too scared to let it come forth. But now that it is at the front, I am no longer scared. I am angry. I am fierce. And as long as Planned Parenthood exists, there is hope.

But Planned Parenthood cannot do it alone. We need each and every one of you to donate, volunteer, call your senator, call your representative, call your state representatives, and call the governor!