The Handmaidís Tale Comes To Life

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This post by Lucinda Marshall appeared on the Feminist Peace Network and she has kindly agreed to our reposting it here.  Do you agree with her premise?

Shortly before the Senate approved its version of  health care reform legislation, I quiped that I was re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in order to get psyched for the vote.  Truthfully, it was only partly said in jest. 

The hijacking of abortion rights as a bargaining chip for the provision of health care is morally reprehensible and if it stands will result in significant harms to women’s health. As women’s health advocates are working full tilt to try to stop this from happening, there is an uncomfortable sense of having been here before.  How is it  possible that we have to fight  for the right to choose to have an abortion all over again?

Blasphemous as it might sound, I think that part of the problem is the word choice, which sounds ever so frivolous compared to the right to life.  We’re not deciding which pair of shoes to buy. We are fighting for the human right to make decisions about our own  lives.  Full stop. As M. Gabriela Alcalde, Director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network told me in an e-mail correspondance,

We should stop talking about the morality of individuals and think about the morality of not providing necessary health care to individuals and communities.  Government’s job is to worry about systems working, government’s moral obligation is to assure that groups or classes of people are not excluded from society’s benefits or carry disproportionately society’s burdens.  Abortion is necessary when seen from a public health perspective.  In countries where it is illegal, maternal mortality is higher, infants are abandoned at higher rates (look at Romania), and overall maternal and child health is compromised.

Just as critically, we need to not lose sight of the  fact that abortion is only one aspect of reproductive rights. There are many other aspects to women’s health care in addition to abortion that need to be assured.  According to Alcalde,

Abortion should not be thought of separately from prenatal care, birthing, and other reproductive and maternal health services and experiences.  separating it from the experience of pregnancy in general is a huge mistake.

As I’ve noted before,  according to the National Women’s Law Center,

Maternity coverage continues to be largely unavailable in the individual health insurance market, with virtually no improvement in access to this essential health coverage from 2008 to 2009. NWLC examined over 3,600 individual health insurance policies offered to 30-year-old women living in capital cities across the country for 2009, and found that only 468 of those plans—or 13%—include any coverage for maternity care.

NWLC also notes that only the current House bill prohibits the treatment of domestic violence as a pre-existing condition and that there are still very significant concerns about the affordability of health care which is more likely to impact women, who earn less than men and are less likely to be covered through an employer.

While these are the primary issues that are on the table in regard to the current  legislation, the reality is that there are other significant women’s reproductive health issues that need to be addressed.

In, “Sowing The Seeds Of Reproductive Justice In Kentucky” (Collective Voices, Fall, 2009), Alcalde points for instance to problems faced by Latina women,

Some reproductive health challenges that Latinas face once in the U.S. include a high uninsured rate, low prenatal care rate, high and rising HIV/AIDS rates, high maternal mortality rate, high cervical cancer rate, and a high unintended pregnancy rate.  Additionally, Latinas have a lower contraceptive use rate and have a higher contraceptive failure rate than other groups of women in the U.S..

Other issues that come to mind include the high c-section rate in the U.S., affordable contraception on campuses and access to rape crisis and abortion services in the military, and the insistence in many parts of the country on the use of doctors (inevitably in high cost hospital settings) instead of midwives to deliver babies.

One of the critical mis-steps in the health care debate was the reduction of the issue to  one of insurance coverage rather than health care provision.  In regards to women’s health, additional damage has been done by allowing abortion to be addressed separate from the overall issue of reproductive health.

In “How To Talk About Reproductive Justice” (Collective Voices, Fall, 2009), Loretta Ross provides a useful framework for a more comprehensive solution when she defines reproductive justice as, “the right of every human being to have a child, not have a child, and parent a child.”

We  need to insist that abortion not be held hostage, nor can we allow it to be split  apart from the right to full reproductive health rights for all women at a fair and equitable price.  That abortion is being used as a bargaining chip for these basic human rights  is a bald effort to control women’s lives and is unacceptable.

To fully understand this patriarchal power play, it is useful to look at the current health care reform debate from a global context.  These are but a few examples:

1.  While the population control drumbeat gets louder as we become more aware of the implications of climate change, it bears recognition that we are very callously already practicing exactly that by the denial of the relatively small amounts of money that it would take to eradicate maternal mortality which claims the lives of more than half a million women every year throughout the world.

“Every hour of every day in DRC, four women die from complications of pregnancy and labour, and for every woman who dies, between 20 and 30 have serious complications, such as obstetric fistula, which is very common in DRC,” said Richard Dackam Ngacthou, country representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). For every 100,000 live births 1,100 women die, he said.

But to meet a national target of reducing the number of women who die in childbirth by 75 percent and to provide all Congolese with access to contraception – in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals – new funding targets must be achieved.

The funding gap is severe: in 2008 some US$5 million went towards the fight against maternal mortality, whereas in 2009 less than $2 million was allocated. Congo’s 2010 budgetary situation is no less dire, with only around $6 million planned to finance the entire health sector, where some $60 million would be warranted, according to a member of parliament.

2.  In South Korea a new policy is effectively coercing women into having children:

On Dec. 9, Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul organised an event titled, ‘Happy Childbirth – Rich and Strong Future’, aimed at trying to raise awareness about the country’s very low birth rate. It sparked controversy when the organisers requested women students in the audience to submit a sworn statement that they would have children.

A fourth year student who prefers to remain anonymous, told IPS “the organisers almost forced female participants to write a sworn statement for childbirth despite many participants asserting that the low birth issue is a social problem rather than mere individual choice.”

South Korea’s birth rate – 1.19 in 2008, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service, is the lowest among OECD countries – has been in the news recently.

In November, the government’s Presidential Council for Future & Vision announced “comprehensive plans for low birth rate.”

The plans include a crackdown on abortion.

3.  And in countries such as China and India, there has been a systemic campaign of favoring the births of male children over females:

There are about 100 million women less on this earth than there should be. Women who are “missing” since they are aborted, burnt, starved and neglected to death by families who prefer sons to daughters. This column had also identified the countries of South Asia, East Asia, West Asia and Saharan Africa as the main regions which were missing most of these women. The estimated number of women who are missing are 44 million in China, 39 million in India, 6 million in Pakistan and 3 billion in Bangladesh. This is the single largest genocide in human history. Ever. Some researchers have coined a word for this phenomenon: Femicide, or the killing of the human female because she is female. (Note:  see also here and here.)

Until we insist that it cannot be considered separate of the overall issue of reproductive health, abortion rights will continue to be in jeopardy. Health care, including full reproductive health care, is a human right, not a commodity to be controlled or bartered away by the governments we elect to represent us.  Yet clearly that is exactly what is happening not only here but in many parts of the world. Our current reality is not so far from Atwood’s dystopia as we might like to think.

book cover
By Lucinda Marshall, Feminist Peace Network


Robyn Brice
Robyn Vorsa4 years ago

I was quoting Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale in another post quite recently. Her dystopian look at a future where women have become chattels to men is actually starting to come true. With constant attacks on women's rights by the fundies, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. By women having to constantly fight for the basics such as fair and equal wages, access to healthcare including contraception and abortion, being able to walk down the street without being harassed, to stop *slut shaming* and to finally recognize women as being equal and worthwhile human beings.
Having lived through the sixties, I have seen the struggle that woman have had just to be able to drink in a public bar, or play pool or access legal services if they are attacked. To not have the blame heaped on them if they are raped and to not be locked out of careers simply because they are female.
What is happening to women world wide is terrifying. We are seeing a global femicide in countries like China and India. We are seeing honour killings and women being murdered because her dowry was not good enough. We need to open our eyes to what is happening in Saudi Arabia where women can't drive or travel freely, to Afghanistan where women are completely subjugated, to Iran, parts of Africa and even beyond. Are we seeing Atwood's book come to life. Ask the Tea Party, ask the men who enforce Sharia law, ask the women who aborted their fetus because it was a girl, and most of all, ask oursel

Joanne Dixon
Joanne Dixon4 years ago

One thing that bothers me about the current discussion is the phrase "trust women." I don't think trust has anything to do with it. Whether a genius or a moron, whether an angel or - something else - a woman is a human being and is the ONLY person who has the right to make decisions about her own health, good decisions or bad decisions. No one thinks we have to trust men - they are assumed to have that right. So should women be.

Grace W.
Grace W8 years ago

I am glad to see Cynthia Samuels speaking up so truthfully and clearly. I agree wholeheartedly with her premises. (In fact, have been wondering how to get my own voice on the subject out into the world and heard.)
My question to all of us who agree with these premises and vision regarding the female's right to autonomy and freedom, including as related to the course of our/their reproductive lives, is what we are going to do about this? I for one think it's time for a mass mobilization of empowered females (and increasingly empowered females) and our male allies (and yes there are at least a few of these out there) to demand that the socio-political structures of our nation and world grow to be truly female friendly and respecting rather than the too often repressive, hurtful, brutal, and even deadly environments they are. I for one have had enough! How do we organize from here on out - with respect to American politics where abortions rights are being used as a bargaining chip even by "democrats" to 70% of females worldwide facing some form of violence over the course of their lives (a statistic I heard in conneaction with the U. N. ' s reported plans to address this) to that outrageous, heartbreaking "femicide" Ms. Samuels talks about (btw, I'm pretty sure if so many "boys" were dissappearing the powers that be would be outraged and calling us to "war" to stop this). There is power in our numbers and moral argument. Now is our time to change things for the better!

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

"Since young women do not seem to care about themselves or their bodies"

According to whom?

"I am not sure that they deserve the right to make choices about their reproductive rights."

That's such a stupid thing to say. What are you even basing that on?

"But I am sick of seeing you women debasing themselves because they somehow think it is cool."

Just because you weren't taught about contraception or abortion and had a bad experience, doesn't give you the right to take your frustrations and superstitions out on other women.

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

Why can't people just agree to mind their own business and let women's reproductive rights be. No one's forcing anyone to get an abortion. It's a personal choice and no one else's business except for the woman and her doctor and her significant other.

Antony T.
.8 years ago

Sadly, many posters seem to think that they can argue for their rights ahead of responsibilities, it is a simple fact of life that men can not give birth, nothing more, but as was said earlier, it takes two to tango, are you arguing that men, somehow do not take responsibility for contraception ? Trust me on this one but when a country like the USA makes a man pay "palimony" because he once lived with a woman, as they did to Lee Marvin and others, it sends a message that the female of the species, is dependant on the male, and deserves far more protection than the male as a consequence of this dependancy, again , I know of NO single male, who is desirous of any unplanned pregnancy, with all the cost implications it brings for their lives, and not one male I have ever come across, has bedded a woman, without asking "are you on the pill ?"
Reality means that the woman who will carry the child in question must take all precautions, it may seem unfair but women cried out for equal treatment for over a hundred years now they do not seem to want it anymore, they want to be a special case, to be dependant when before the law, ( when it suits them ), and have their cake and eat it, when they want it, otherwise.
No law says that a man must be helped when his life is being threatened by prostate cancer, or testicular cancer or penile cancer, and precious little by comparison with women, is spent on research in these areas, want equality ladies ? then pay up.........

Gweneth B.
Gweneth B8 years ago

I'm 55 yrs. old & I've seen for many yrs. that we live in a, male-ruled & even misogynistic society. I don't think men should have any right to decide what we, as women do or don't do with our own bodies. Especially since we have had no right to decide what men do with theirs, even when we're married to them! And I don't know why mister puckett is being so cowardly as to smokescreen his true feelings about the subject, with concerns about our constitution being violated, when our last few president's have wiped their backsides with our Beloved Constitution...Gweneth Baldwin

Chris McCabe
Christina McCabe8 years ago

Abortion won't be banished; it will either be legal, safe, & accessible, or illegal...except for richer people, whose doctors will class their pregnancy as 'life-threatening'.
Giving birth (willingly or not) isn't a breeze, & can impact on a woman's health for the rest of her life.

Paul Puckett
Paul P8 years ago

Perhaps a review of the document that regularly gets left out of discussion on many issues would be helpful. The argument seems to always come down to whether you believe the fetus has rights. Here is the definition of a Citizen of the United States from a little document known as the Constitution of the United States of America, the 14th Amendment:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Born or naturalized are necessary requirements to have the rights of citizens. Deciding what other people can do, based on your opinion of whether they are being responsible or not, is clearly a violation of the 14th Amendment. Talking about it, fortunately, is protected by the same document.

No offense intended, just thought that the document that we operate under should be mentioned.

Glenna Jones-kachtik
Glenna Kachtik8 years ago

Maria, for every woman using abortion as contraception; there are 4 others who have to have one because of rape, incest or the life of the mother.
You make it sound SO EASY...well, the woman got pregnant & so she should just carry it for 9 months and then poof, if she doesn't want it, surrender it for adoption...problem solved; baby born & childless couple gets a baby. What world do you live in??? She still has to carry that baby for 9 months. She still has to risk her life to have it. Adoption? Do you really think it is as simple as just giving the baby up and someone adopting it? The baby may or may not be adopted. The baby may or may not be born healthy and if it is not, then the likelihood of it being adopted lessens.
What if she chooses to keep the baby and really doesn't have the funds?
You knew some people who had abortions for the wrong reasons. Not every woman is like that.and you cannot choose for anyone but yourself.