In 1984, Margaret Atwood started writing what would become The Handmaid’s Tale and made a promise to herself: she would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. In creating the world of Gilead, she crafted a stark warning for women, whose bodies, sexuality and reproduction have historically been controlled by authoritarian, patriarchal states. With the alarm bells ringing in the wake of a leaked draft ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Canada’s National Observer columnists Sandy Garossino and Max Fawcett got Atwood on Twitter Spaces for a one hour conversation. Here’s the transcript.

Atwood: Women are not mentioned as having political rights in the original American Constitution, which was written right after the American Revolution of the 18th century. So it is an 18th century document. The French revolutionaries followed suit and explicitly excluded women from political power. So Justice Alito’s leaked opinion wants to overturn Roe vs. Wade with an argument we call originalist. That is, if it's not in their original Constitution, then it really shouldn't be part of things. And that's going to leave out quite a lot, including women's voting rights. So my piece isn't about whether people should have abortions or not, it's about the Constitution, and what is constitutional.

In the original Constitution, the First Amendment says that there shall be no state religion, and people should be free to worship in the religion of their choice. In other words, you should not, according to the original Constitution, have anybody else's religion foisted upon you, or be subjected to its strictures. So if according to your religion, abortion is a sin, you should not have one. As they said according to your religion, but you do not have the constitutional right to foist that religious judgement upon anybody else. So that is what my piece is about, it’s about originalism. It's about the fact that Justice Alito based some of his reasoning on 17th century jurisprudence, not even on the original 18th century constitution, and you better start thinking about the rights you're going to lose if this originalist line of thought goes much further.

Garossino: It’s been fascinating to watch this whole debate unfurl because it's amazing how much it takes us back into history. I think our natural notion of history is that it's progressive, that we move beyond certain things.

Atwood: I don't know where you ever got that. Why are revolutions called revolutions? Because the metaphor is that of a wheel. Which wheel is that? It's the Wheel of Fortune, and you can see the Wheel of Fortune in the tarot deck, and if you've got a tarot deck that's old enough, you will see that the Wheel of Fortune is being spun round by a goddess called Fortuna. And she is blindfolded. She's spinning the wheel. Some people are rising up on the left-hand side of the wheel, there's usually a finger at the top of the crown. And then they're falling off on the left-hand side of the wheel, and then they're being crushed underneath it. So the people who had lived through these cycles of events, many times what with wars and upheavals in one monarch being assassinated by another, etc. thought of history not as infinitely progressive yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Oz, but as a series of revolutions of the Wheel of Fortune. And it was very hopeful to think that it's always going to progress to a point of greater good, but it's not borne out by history itself.

Garossino: And one of the primary tensions in history relating to these kinds of events is the tension between secular and religious rule. You know, the city of man versus the City of God, I think that what had been, an enforced separation of church and state, and it's right there in the Constitution. But what we are seeing now, is the absolute encroachment and seizure of power by Christians.

Atwood: Let’s not just say Christians, that's pretty dismissive. And a lot of Christians would say these are not our kinds of Christians. Are you talking about people who dance with snakes? Are you talking about the Pope? Exactly who are you talking about? Are you talking about the social justice Christians called Sojourners? There are many, many different kinds of approaches. So let us say: people who are using Christianity as an excuse to seize power.

Fawcett: So if I could just ask a quick question. I'm curious, you know, what, what should progressives, people who don't want to see Gilead unfold in real life? What should they be thinking about doing right now?

Atwood: I kind of hate the word progressives, which you may have figured out from what I said about the Wheel of Fortune. I mean, progressives have this kind of belief that it's all gonna go their way and if it doesn't go their way, then everybody else is wicked. So you know, there is a string of puritanism and in the progressives too, let us make that clear. So what should they do? You're asking me? I can tell you what you shouldn't do but I'm not very good at telling you what you should do. I think if you're in the States, and you're a woman, you better take this seriously because your voting rights are going to be next, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, or an independent, and you are female. So both, both in the next elections. But this is going to be originalism, that's what's going to happen.

So, the other thing about the debate over abortion, most Americans have pretty mixed feelings about it. They don't go as far as the extreme on either end. But the right-wingers are pushing for the notion that an egg fertilized by a sperm acquires a soul immediately then. So all of this stuff depends on a belief and souls, which is a religious belief. So this is what we were talking about when we're talking about imposing a state theocracy. If you happen not to believe in souls, you're going to be subject to this kind of law anyway, whether you believe in souls or don't believe in souls, if it's not part of your religion to believe in souls, too bad for you. It is a religious belief, and then we have to make a distinction here between beliefs, no evidence needs to be provided, and knowledge, factual knowledge, which can be disproved.

Fawcett: Yeah, I mean, there's sort of a parallel here between what's happening in the United States and what happened in Iran in the late 70s.

Atwood: Not just sort of.

Fawcett: I feel like I'm hearing a lot of my friends, you know, progressives, saying, well, they won't go any further than this.

Atwood: They're not going to stop here. They will go as far as they can go. And forget that part where you say it's not going to affect me - because that is what people say. So let's just do the numbers. We're talking about women of reproductive age. So we're not talking about four-year-olds, and we're not talking about me. So I can say, well, this is perfect for me because you know, I'm not gonna get pregnant unless by some great miracle. So let them just work it out. But what you're talking about is the state claiming possession of people's bodies. So there is a parallel and I wrote about this and who does own your body? Who can claim to own your body? Male bodies have been claimed, through conscription and the draft. The state needs your body, we want you to be in the army, it will be a crime to refuse this - but we're going to, we're going to cover your food, your lodging, your clothing and your medical expenses. It's part of the deal. So if they really want to conscript women of reproductive age in this manner, which is what they're doing, it's forced to childbirth. If they want to have enforced childbirth, the nation should pay all of those expenses. And there are a lot of women who can't afford more children, it's a lot about money. So what they want to do is enforce childbirth and make the women pay. Is that fair? So if you got drafted in the army, do you have to pay all your own medical expenses, food and lodging, and clothing? No, you do not. So let's just be fair here.

Garossino: What do you think is at the foundation, the real springboard as it were, for whether it's religious, or as you say, a seizure of power by people using religion, about women and sexuality and I suppose this might also apply to LGBTQ the the the obsession around sexuality, and we're seeing it now coming with all of these theories about Q-anon and, and pedophilia, that sort of thing.

Atwood: Okay, and what century have people not been interested in sex? Women of reproductive age have always been regarded, by certain parts of society, as tradable goods. Whether you were doing arranged marriages, or whether you were doing a wholesale rape of civilian populations… and part of that is, “I will force people to have my genetic children.” But I think it's really about who's going to be bought, so who shall be boss? Am I having very suspicious thoughts when I think some of this is payback for Me Too? I can rat out my neighbour and collect $10,000, accuse them of having an abortion, and even if, if it wasn't true, I could still mess up their lives pretty severely. And by the way, who is going to enforce this? Are we talking about, are we going to snatch a woman off the street and subject her to an involuntary forced medical examination? Is that what we’re going to do? If I suspect you of being pregnant I’ll get you out of your car, and then drag you to the doctor who is going to look up inside you.

Garossino: Well, and then there’s the issue of how we are treating women who are miscarrying as suspects?

Atwood: And what is the result of that going to be? If they go to the hospital, they get turned in.

Garossino: Witch Hunt is not that far off in the rails terminology….

Atwood: Well, people use it rather broadly. So let's go back to the witch trials and Salem, and they were trials and not witch hunts, those are two different things. In the witch trials, they used evidence that could not be refuted and it was called spectral evidence, your spectre being a simulacrum of yourself. And if you, Max, or Sandra are asleep in your bed with witnesses that you were, but somebody else saw you a little distance away a couple miles away, messing with their livestock, or behaving strangely in a field, that proved you were a witch - because they saw your spectre, right? You can't disprove that, sorry.

  • No, I wasn’t.
  • Yes, you were, I saw you.

And those trials did not stop until they decided to reject spectral evidence because they suspected that some people had been abusing it.

Garossino: It's almost insane that we're actually talking about these things, but we are witnessing through social media a craze of almost insanity around this and a fervour the right is pursuing.

Atwood: Let me cast your mind back just a few decades to the satanic abuse craze. So people were being accused of satanic abuse, and a number of them are still in jail. But it was the same kind of non-evidence that was being presented. It was people's testimony that they had seen somebody sacrificing children in a field, and no testimony and that they had seen the blood run counter to gravity, I mean, once these things get going, they become sort of mass hallucinations. So how are you to know for instance, that you're in the middle of one? The McCarthy communist trials, I mean, there were communists. Absolutely. And I'm sure there's some satanic abuse, without a doubt. But then it gets going and - it comes out of the impulse to be good. You know, we long to be good. And Sandy, you don't want children being abused, do you?

Garossino: Absolutely not. I will do anything to stop it.

Atwood: Then why will you not believe me? When I told you that I saw your very nice neighbour out in the field doing weird things to a sheep. So it's all in a Nathaniel Hawthorne story called Young Goodman Brown. Ever since the times of the Puritans, Americans have been very suspicious of our neighbours.

Fawcett: So just speaking of neighbours here, I want to sort of jump in and ask: Canada plays a big role in your book, in the show in The Handmaid's Tale. What should we be thinking about as Canadians? How do we prepare? How do we help given that this, you know, this train seems to have left the station in the United States?

Atwood: I don't think it has completely left the station. It left the station in certain parts of it and maybe they will have to live through it as they did in the 17th century, and discover, all over again, that they didn't like it. So they will probably find their states somewhat de-populated. They will find anybody with daughters heading somewhere else and a lot of businesses will not wish to be there either. Because people will be too terrified to actually live there. So if that's the idea, you know, make everybody terrified, let’s see if people enjoy that. I mean, I think it's tragic for the world because the United States may not be a paragon of virtue, but consider the alternatives. So Canada, small, well-meaning Canada has always been a useful place to escape to when things went pear-shaped in the United States. And so is it in my books? Will Canada go in the whole hog, Trumpian direction? I would say unlikely. Stranger things have happened, but Canada is linguistically and religiously, probably too diverse. What would you say about that?

Fawcett: I think that's comforting. Just as much as any of this can be comforting. But you know, I do worry maybe that we're a little bit complacent.

Atwood: That is usually cited as our besetting sin, complacency.

Garossino: Maybe this would be a good time to engage with our large and enthusiastic audience.

Fawcett: Okay, we'll start with Heidi. Hello, Heidi.

AUDIENCE: Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for hosting this forum. Margaret, how do we wake people up to the disinformation war that we've been living under and the impact that it's having on creating the moral panic and the moral outrage that is being stirred up by the extremists?

Atwood: Well, I think a lot of them are quite thoroughly awakened. Anyway, if you look at the numbers who supported the attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in Ottawa, and those numbers are very low. So no matter what you may think of that government, the idea that you can just march in there and say: okay, we're here. So you'll resign? We'll take your place. Thank you very much. I think you have to keep saying there's a difference between a belief and the truth. There's a difference between a belief and, and provable knowledge. Show me the evidence, and let's talk through your reasons for believing this, and are they verifiable? And you can see why people would distrust a lot of information, because we've had big companies lying to us for quite a long time. Some of those have been pharmaceutical companies. Sorry, but it's true. So how do you know who to trust? That is really at the core of this issue. A lot of people are in the position of thinking, who should we trust? Who can we trust? I think we're also in a period of history in which you're not voting for wonderful If you're voting for Least Worst. I think most of the time you are anyway. Most of the time, it's like okay, you walk into the dress shop and nothing really suits you, but you have to have something. So you pick the thing that is the least horrible.

Fawcett: Okay, next up, we have Indra…

AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for hosting this space. And as a Canadian, while actually a dual citizen living, you know, growing up in Ontario, and living in Houston, Texas for the last 20 years. It's just extremely frustrating with what's going on. Obviously, I tried to do my best I've, I've, I'm a speech language pathologist, but I've started working as an election clerk or an Election Judge, because I am so afraid of where that's all going as well, with safety and things like that, but I feel like that's somewhere I can help. Margaret, anyone, any words of wisdom on how this Canadian can keep it together down here? I survived the Trump years but hanging on with a thin thread, my whole family's still up in Ontario and so that's that's wonderful respite, and we do have our dual citizenship and our passports and are always ready to move back. But any calming words of wisdom?

Atwood: So I can't tell you how to live your life. Quite a lot of what is going on at the moment is extreme Republicans trying to out-extreme one another. And this usually happens when things get this polarized and that happens on the left as well. It's just that the left doesn't have as much political power in that part of the world at the moment. But you know, you get a certain kind of aesthetic puritanism on either side and I sometimes think of it as, as the old Cavalier Roundhead dichotomy from the English civil wars in the 17th century. The Puritans started out just wanting to sort of clean up the Anglican service, but things got more extreme. Well, I’m more Puritan than you - well watch this! Now the conservatives are saying, I’m more conservative than you. But none of the stuff that they're doing was what we used to think of as conservatism at all. You know, you can think of Robert Stanfield, for heaven's sake, would he have any, anything in common with these people at all? No, no, he would not. So the old fiscal conservatives, and the Bill Davis conservatives have basically been pushed out by the watch me be more extreme conservatives.

Garossino: One of the things that does worry me, though, Margaret, and you've referenced that yourself is the idea that once the ball gets rolling on these things, or the round head gets rolling or whatever, it goes until it has gone too far. How does this work? Are there examples of societies that have kind of halted these trends once they've got really going?

Atwood: Yes, there are but often it comes in the guise of a reaction. So let me just run through the second half of the 20th century for you quite quickly. So in the 50s women were told to go into the open plan bungalow and have four children and a washing machine so that men coming back from the war could have jobs and feel that they were doing something useful. I mean, a lot of people were very unsettled by that war, and damaged by it, I have to say: war is shit. It's not to be recommended. Anyway, that was the 50s When I was a teenager, then Elvis Presley happened in 1955. McCarthy happened at the beginning of that decade but mostly it was fairly stable. The Cold War was going on, but it was fairly stable, and it was prosperous because there was an economic blip caused by the baby boom, so people of my generation were in great demand. We didn't think we wouldn't have jobs. We knew we'd have jobs. It was just a question of what kind. And we thought that was a permanent state, which of course it wasn't. Because all of these new people were coming. So the 60s come along, you get Kennedy being assassinated, you get the Cuban Missile Crisis, you get Robert Kennedy being assassinated, you get the civil rights movement, you get the Summer of Love, you get the women's movement coming at the end of the 60s. And the 70s brought the gung-ho women's movement, and they did get quite a few laws changed, you'll notice that Roe v. Wade happened in the early 70s. Then in 1980, Ronald Reagan got elected. He starts dismantling the New Deal. And he starts rolling back and responding to the changes that had happened in the 60s and 70s. And the religious right appears on the scene as a political force, which had had been particularly before and they find out, they've got clout. So I refer you back to the French Revolution, you have more and more extreme laws, more and more heads rolling, that culminates with an event in which other people in the Congress figure out that Robespierre has got them on the list and he's going to chop up their heads next. So they chop off heads. People tried to stabilize things then you get something called the Thermidorian Reaction. And in the Thermidorian Reaction the friends and relatives whose heads were chopped off by the Jacobites go around chopping off the heads of those who have chopped off the heads. It’s a revenge moment. Yes, things can go this way. And then they can go back that way. As I recall, the 80s and 90s it was the era of “I'm not a feminist, but…” Nobody wanted to admit to being old-fashioned. And that's when I wrote The Handmaid's Tale, in the I'm not a feminist-but age. And then we got the events of the early 21st century, which included 911, all of the chess pieces moved around on the global map of power, the rise of Putin, the financial crash of 2008 and a little interregnum, that would be the Obama years. And then you got the election of Donald Trump. And a lot of witchcraft rhetoric during that election, by the way. And that's where he got the idea that Hillary Clinton has been practicing satanic arts.

Fawcett: So we have Kenny Wilson, on the digital stage. Now he is actually a journalist, researcher reports on the U.S. radical right. So Kenny, you can go ahead and ask Margaret a question.

AUDIENCE: Yeah, thanks for hosting this. You know, in the last several years leading up to the leak of the draft decision. There were a lot of people who made the argument that the threat to Roe v Wade was overstated or exaggerated. There seem to be a lot of people that kind of denied that this was actually going to happen. So my question is, looking forward and into a post-Roe America, how do you articulate the argument that the Christian right won’t to stop with banning abortion that they're going to go after birth control, they're gonna go after IVF treatments, they're gonna go after a whole host of reproductive freedoms.

Atwood: They’re gonna go after votes for women, let's just make that clear. So this isn't just about ensoulment, the question of when you get to be a human being and should we have funerals for a zygote. And that was the old argument that's been going back and forth since the ancient Greeks. So is an acorn and oak tree? Which came first the chicken or the egg, but the real thing is the legal precedent that will be set, if that is the opinion used to overturn Roe v. Wade. And it needn't have been about abortion that could have been about, you know, voting rights or, or any of the other things that are not mentioned in the original Constitution. But if you're going to accept the argument, if you're going to accept the originalist line of thinking, then a whole lot of other rights are going to be affected by that because it will be used as a precedent to get rid of them. And who will end up with the vote? It will be white male people with property. It'll go back before any of the alleged enlargement of the voting franchise.

Garossino: And in the context of what appears to be a seizure by the U.S. Supreme Court of powers under the guise of religion is also a shift of constitutional power to the Supreme Court…

Atwood: It’s nothing new that they're ruling on the Constitution. It's the way they're ruling and the precedent they are setting. So what they are doing is quite cleverly setting up a precedent that will allow them to dismantle everything that's happened since approximately 1780. They're setting a precedent. And it's a very dangerous precedent if you think that democracy is the system in which all citizens should be able to vote. If you don't think that it's fine. As long as you're a white man with property, you will still continue to enjoy the rights that you enjoy at the moment. But if you're not one of those people, you won't have any rights. Government by consent of the governed was one of the reasons for which the American Revolution was fought. And no taxation without representation was another of those slogans. So if these people have their way you are going to be taxed without being represented, and you are going to be governed without your consent.

Fawcett: So as Sandy said, we are just past the 600-person mark, we have a long line of potential questions here. I'm going to invite Deborah Shaw up here.

Audience: Hello, good morning from Buenos Aires, Argentina. First, yeah, I want to thank Margaret for the support she gave us through no fight for legal abortion in recent years. Today we see that a great country like the USA is beginning to regress in women's freedom. And it's worrying. My question to Margaret is does she think this will become a global thing, and how can we act? Thank you.

Atwood: You just have to be ready for the fact that if you make a change of any kind, some people aren't going to like it. And this is, this has been true for quite a long time. So how can you act? I'm not too sure, I would say you're going to have to do the things that people in democracies do, which is get your message out there. And, organize your voting block and ask people just a really simple question, which is: do you want to live in a democracy? And if you don't want to live in a democracy, what form of government would you prefer? Would you prefer to have a monarch? A hereditary King? Would you like that? Would you like to have a president for life? Would you like to have an oligarchy in which only rich people make decisions? I think a lot of countries are almost there anyway. Would you like a kleptocracy, or maybe a bunch of warlords? So if you don't want democracy, what do you want? And if you do want democracy, maybe you should start acting as if you do want it. And that means holding on to the idea that the state does not own your body.

Why is the discussion not focused on reviewing the inadequacies in the US constitutions on racism, gender rights, women's humanitarian rights since they are non existent.
I also believe an open discussion on abortion is needed after 50 yrs. Since it Is different in state to state TO FIND SOME COMMON GROUND. THE ENTIRE DISCUSSION OF AND AGREEMENT TO WHAT STAGE OF FETAL DEVELOPMENT CONSTITUTES LIFE. Possibly open forums and discussion could result in much clearer terms of "consistency" in care, support and availability of abortion which seems unfair currently and guidelines could be reached without going backwards decades, even centuries. It seems to me there is so very much confusion and inconsistencies resulting in extreme over reacting and extreme far right injustices to what may be the majority of women. The constitution is where this matter must start and possibly hopefuly could end. DEMOCRACY MUST BE ALLOWED ITS DUE COURSE TO RESOLVE THIS CRITICAL AND EXPLOSIVE ISSUE. Women and support groups should be taking this to highest courts to bring the shortcomings of the constitution into discussion....very likely this is already happening all over the country or should be.

This comment by Ms. Atwood in the final paragraph sums up the whole discussion quite briiliantly IMO (as is her wont):

"So if you don't want democracy, what do you want? And if you do want democracy, maybe you should start acting as if you do want it."

Thank you!

Essential reading.....its startling to think that getting rid of Roe versus Wade could set a precedent to returning to the original American constitution, but given how hard women have had to fight for every right we currently have, it isn't too hard to imagine there's a growing gaggle of white men who fantasize a future more like America's past. We'd likely need a lot of domestic terrorists to get women to accept those roll backs however...and while there may be volunteers, it won't be a cake walk.

The growing gaggle of white men includes millions of white women who think their role is to support their man. Feminism? Nonsense they say

Fascinating interview and all too true. Creeping fascism.  The US constitution can be amended if 75% of the state governments approve.  Presently I believe 34 states have Republicans in power. 4 more is all that's needed.
So as Atwood says, they ain't going to stop at abortion laws. Courts! Phooey.  Let's really put Conservatives in charge.
Fortunately Canada inserted a population requirement. We in the middle left should be more diligent. Kenney's out, but look enough the alternatives are.

"Male bodies have been claimed, through conscription and the draft. The state needs your body, we want you to be in the army, it will be a crime to refuse this."
And yet male people refused. Went to jail as conscientious objectors; went to Canada, etc.
Reasoning by analogy - Lysistrata anyone? New Mexico? Canada? Anywhere but Texas?