Is America the new Gilead?

Image: Pro-choice demonstration in front of SCOTUS, June 2016 by Jordan Uhl via Flickr

On Wednesday the 5th of May, the Texas Senate passed one of the most extreme abortion laws to date. This comes mere months after Republican lawmaker Bryan Slaton of the Texas House of Representatives proposed a bill that would make abortion punishable by death, without exceptions for rape or incest. Though this seems like the kind of law to crop up in a society like Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale, this hostile attack on women’s reproductive rights has become almost the norm after the torrent of anti-abortion legislation throughout the United States this year.

The journey towards abortion rights in American has been turbulent and difficult. Abortions were made federally legal in 1973 following the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that state restrictions on abortion violated constitutional protections of privacy. It seems shocking that almost 50 years later, men openly seek control of what women choose to do with their bodies. A sixth bill advanced in Texas would require women to receive counseling should they want an abortion. As part of this counseling, a woman considering abortion would be given a pin to show she had received the counseling offer, which would be subsequently destroyed should she decide to go through with the procedure. Coercive and manipulative though this may seem, this is not the only bill that seeks to disregard women’s choice and bodily autonomy.

The value of a woman’s right to choose is further disregarded when looking at another of the anti-abortion bills passed by the Texas Senate: Senate Bill 8, otherwise known as a ‘heart-beat bill.’ In Texas, abortions at the time of this proposition were legal in the first 20 weeks of the pregnancy; however, under this bill, abortion becomes illegal as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. This can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, when a menstrual period is only two weeks late and before many women will even know they are pregnant. This bill also deviates only for medical exemptions, not for cases of rape or incest. To add further insult to injury, Senate Bill 9 proposes a possible fine of $100,000 for doctors who perform abortions after the law goes into effect, while the present financial penalty possible for sexual assault in Texas stands at $10,000. As Texas State Senator Carol Alvarado pertinently pointed out, “Why would we punish a doctor who performs an abortion on a victim of rape or incest more than the actual rapist?”

On May 19th, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8 into law. The executive director of Planned Parenthood and the political arm of Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas, Dyana Limon-Mercado, commented aptly on the sly way the bill effectively bans all abortions through its six-week limit: “When you factor in the time it takes to confirm a pregnancy, consider your options and make a decision, schedule an appointment and comply with all the restrictions politicians have already put in place for patients and providers, a six-week ban essentially bans abortion outright.” This then calls into question whether these new laws are constitutional, as abortion is still legal in 50 states, yet it has been effectively banned "outright” in Texas.

In the last month, a high school student, Paxton Smith, swapped out her teacher-approved graduation speech for a concise, passionate, and moving discourse sharing her fears over the legislation in Texas that now bans abortion as early as six weeks. She stated, “I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, that my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter. I hope you can feel how gut-wrenching that is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you.”

Amidst the significant advancements in anti-abortion legislation, we are forced to question why pro-life groups are still so desperate for abortion to be banned; in 1967, less than 10 years before Roe v. Wade when abortion was illegal, an estimated 829,000 dangerous illegal or self-induced abortions occurred. Restricting access to abortion will in no way lead to fewer abortions or fewer unwanted pregnancies; on the contrary, it will lead to more life-threatening so-called “back-street abortions,” where clandestine and often fatal attempts at abortions are carried out, often in unsafe conditions. This will no doubt only lead to more physical and psychological harm facing the women desperately trying to find a means of terminating their pregnancy outside of healthcare.

To many, it is ironic that the notion of preservation of life that underpins the pro-life movement now coincides with one of its members actively seeking to disrupt and end the lives of women who get abortions. The fact that some of the new bills also include no exception for cases of rape and incest resulting in a termination of pregnancy may also cause controversy among the more moderate pro-life advocates, as almost 75% of Americans believe abortion should be permissible in cases of rape. Does the rise in more extreme abortion bills suggest that there is a similar rise in support for the extremist pro-life supporters, or simply that they tend to hold more positions in government? Undoubtedly, the rise in religious conservatism in the Republican party increases momentum and appetite for anti-abortion legislation. Just as the ‘modern-day fervor of the Christain right’ plays a key role in Gilead’s regime in Atwood's novel, forcing women to be docile and subservient, so the very same religious conservatism within the Republican party pushes forward an agenda to claim control of women’s bodies.

It is hard to consider these laws restricting and rescinding women’s reproductive rights without dreading what it will lead to. The conservative majority in the Supreme Court was only bolstered by the appointment of Amy Coney-Barrett on October 26th of 2020 to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and it perhaps now presents the greatest threat yet to abortion rights. A pillar of the Trump campaign platform was Trump’s promise to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision by putting more “pro-life justices on the court.” However, despite conservative justices obtaining a 5-4 majority with Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment in 2018, Trump failed to deliver on this promise. Although significant pieces of anti-abortion legislation have been proposed in recent years—in 2019 the Republican-controlled senate in Alabama voted to effectively ban abortion at every stage of pregnancy—abortion remains legal in all 50 states in America due to the timing of cases and the politics of the court. For example, in the summer of 2020, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the four liberal justices to strike down a Louisiana abortion law because it had previously done so with a Texas law; despite his political ideology, as Chief Justice, Roberts felt compelled to abide by the precedent of the court. In May, the now 6-3 conservative Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments regarding Mississippi’s abortion regulation, which bans abortions after 15 weeks with limited exceptions. This, for many, is “the most serious challenge to Roe v. Wade since 1992.” Even if Roberts sides with his liberal colleagues, the other five justices could begin to roll back the protections of Roe v. Wade.

This clear disregard for women’s well-being in the laws proposed and passed by the Texas Senate and to be considered by the Supreme Court calls into question firstly how much more the yet unborn fetus’ life is worth than the mother’s, and whether the laws are truly “protecting the most vulnerable Texans” or just intended to claim ever more control over women’s bodies.

It is undeniable that our current political setting regarding the rights of women echoes that of the oppressive, theocratic dictatorship of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Indeed, in recent years red cloaks and white bonnets have regularly been donned by demonstrators seeking to challenge the notion that women are seen as slaves of the state. The idea that the Handmaids were seen as mere child-bearing vessels and incubators was echoed in the 2017 protests in Northern Ireland against the abortion ban. When dozens in Argentina convened to protest access to abortion, Atwood supplied the following letter to be read out: “Nobody likes abortion, even when safe and legal. It’s not what any woman would choose for a happy time on Saturday night. But nobody likes women bleeding to death on the bathroom floor from illegal abortions, either. What to do?”

Atwood herself seems to warn against the life-threatening alternatives to abortion that will become the only option should the procedure be banned. Criminalizing abortion will not decrease the number of abortions; it will simply reduce their safety. As shown by Guttmacher Institute research, abortion rates are higher in low-income countries where abortion is banned than in high-income countries where abortion is legal.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of Atwood’s speculative fiction lies in its truth: everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale is based entirely on real history. As Atwood said herself, “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened… no imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.” One event from which she took particular inspiration was the forced birth regimes of Romania in 1966, where leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s fixation on boosting the country’s population led to the banning of abortion and birth control, and the policing of pregnant women. Shocking though this may seem, it is important to remember that although this now exists some 55 years in our history, for Atwood it was less than 18 years from her beginning The Handmaid’s Tale in the spring of 1984 and only seven years before the Roe v. Wade decision.

If there is one clear message we can take from The Handmaid’s Tale, it is this: the political control of women’s bodies and their reproductive rights is morally wrong, in every sense. The totalitarianism of Gilead is a direct consequence of a patriarchal society that erases female agency through conservative religious authority. The idea of being encouraged to spy on neighbors and report family and friends, seem reminiscent of one segment from the recently introduced anti-abortion law in Texas, which switches the power to private citizens who can sue abortion providers or anyone assisting an abortion procedure, without requiring a connection to the person needing an abortion or the provider.

Now, in 2021, there have been bills drafted by legislators that threaten to kill women who get abortions. Those who assume Gilead and other such dystopian dictatorships are impossible may need to take a closer look at our current political climate. When will politicians realize, if ever, that women’s bodies are not political playgrounds? Will there ever come a day when the life and choice of the living, breathing woman in front of them are worth more than an unborn fetus?

Perhaps it is appropriate to end on a tweet by Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA), commenting his feelings on the issue: “I’m a pro-choice pastor, and I believe that a hospital room is way too small for a woman, her doctor, and the United States Government.”