When the cast and crew of The Handmaid’s Tale began shooting the fifth and final season back in February, the show was still squarely (if tenuously) in the realm of fiction. Now, when the TV show airs later this year, it will seem far more realistic to the millions of Americans watching in horror as the United States Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe v. Wade.
No, Gilead hasn’t broken away from the rest of the United States (yet), but the attack on reproductive rights and freedoms it represents is well underway.
The decision to repeal Roe v. Wade will activate so-called “trigger laws” banning abortion immediately in at least 13 states, with nine others already having pre-Roe laws on the books. As The Atlantic reported, “many of these state bans contain no exceptions for rape or incest survivors,” while in Texas, it will soon be a felony for any doctor to perform an abortion for a person who was raped or impregnated by a family member if the conservative justices on the Supreme Court get their way.
In the reddest of red states like Louisiana, legislators are even looking to treat both the people providing and receiving abortions as murderers.
Alt-right propagandist and conspiracy theory enthusiast Jack Posobiec nodded to the connection between the show and America’s emerging reality in a recent tweet, which replaced the states on America’s map that have restrictive anti-abortion legislation on the books with an image of the handmaids and their iconic outfits. “Soon,” he wrote.
Being able to predict the future is a nice feather in Margaret Atwood’s already impressive professional cap, but this surely isn’t the outcome she wanted when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale nearly four decades ago. But as Atwood made clear in a 2018 interview, her book wasn’t so much speculative fiction as a reminder of what human beings have already done — and are therefore capable of doing again.
“I made a rule for myself: I 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,” she said. “The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights — all had precedents, and many of these were to be found, not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition itself.”
The parallels between her book and the reality that’s unfolding in the United States today are both stunning and stark. Canada, for example, is suddenly being seen as a safe haven for Americans looking to flee an increasingly repressive regime, one that seems more determined with each passing day to control what happens with their bodies.
The reference to a “domestic supply of infants” on page 34 of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion reads like it was drawn from one of the pages in Atwood’s novel. And the enabling incident behind the dissolution of the fictionalized United States, a Reichstag-esque fire at the U.S. Capitol, could easily have happened on Jan. 6, 2021.
It’s clearly tempting for some pundits to suggest this analogy is overblown and that the U.S. is nowhere close to the dystopia that’s described in The Handmaid’s Tale. Conservative columnist and pundit Andrew Sullivan even suggested the demise of Roe v. Wade will mark a positive turning point in American life and the beginning of the end of the political polarization that Roe apparently kick-started.
Fat chance. If anything, it will embolden state and federal Republican legislators and the fundamentalist Christian voters whom they are beholden to. They have a long list of potential targets, from the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage to the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that invalidated sodomy laws and legalized same-sex sexual activity. And while those targets may have been out of reach before, the imminent demise of Roe v. Wade will almost certainly change their calculus.
Opinion: The parallels between The Handmaid's Tale and the reality that’s unfolding in the United States today are both stunning and stark, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #RoeVWade #ReproductiveRights #ReproductiveJustice
That’s why now, more than ever, we should listen to Margaret Atwood.
In an edited extract from Burning Questions, her recently released collection of essays, published in The Guardian over the weekend, Atwood made it clear that we’re much closer to the world portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale than we might like to admit.
“No one is forcing women to have abortions,” she wrote. “No one either should force them to undergo childbirth. Enforce childbirth if you wish but at least call that enforcing by what it is. It is slavery: the claim to own and control another’s body, and to profit by that claim.”
Slavery in America is hardly a new concept. But the version Atwood describes is part of America’s possible future, not its past. If Americans want to keep The Handmaid’s Tale in the realm of fiction, they’ll need to channel their inner June Osborne and start fighting back.