Why Handmaid’s Tale Imagery Hurts the Abortion Fight

During the era of chattel slavery in the United States, men and women alike were subjected to forced reproduction. “Slave women’s childbearing replenished the enslaved labor force,” writes Dorothy Roberts in her exceptional 1997 book Killing the Black Body. “Black women bore children who belonged to the slave owner from the moment of their conception. This […] made control of reproduction a central aspect of whites’ subjugation of African people in America.” When the importation of new enslaved persons into the United States was outlawed in 1808, forced reproduction became even more critical to slave owners.

Today, pregnant people in the U.S. prison system (which many consider to be a direct extension of slavery) have little to no access to reproductive health care, and are often forced to keep unwanted pregnancies. Studies show that, nationwide, even when an abortion is permitted, prison policies make the burden of accessing abortion care exponentially higher for an incarcerated person. One Tennessee woman was reportedly told the only way she could access an abortion was to post bail of $1 million so she could leave to have the procedure. By the time she petitioned to have her bail reduced, her pregnancy was too far along, and she was no longer eligible for the procedure under state law.

In addition to forced pregnancies and births, the U.S. government has also robbed tens of thousands of their fertility through forced sterilization. In 1927, the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell upheld a law that allowed Virginia to sterilize individuals it deemed “feebleminded.” During the Nuremberg trials, several Nazi leaders referenced this case as a justification for their own eugenicist crimes. Virginia repealed its sterilization law in 1974, but as of today, Buck v. Bell has not been overturned

Research conducted by Choctaw-Cherokee physician Connie Pinkerton-Uri estimated that, in the 1970s, more than 25% of Native women were sterilized by the Indian Health Service (a government-controlled agency). Others thought the figure to be as high as 50%. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri’s research showed that women often agreed to the procedure in the midst of giving birth, and were either heavily sedated or in extreme pain, thus limiting their ability to give informed consent. 

Similar atrocities were forced upon residents of Puerto Rico, due in part to pressure and subsidies from the U.S. government. In 2020, a whistleblowing nurse working at an ICE detention center claimed a doctor at the facility had performed numerous hysterectomies on detainees without their consent, and was known as “the uterus collector” by women at the facility. A Department of Homeland Security report found the hysterectomy allegations to be unsupported, but it did find that the facility’s “medical policies and procedures” were “inadequate.” More than 40 migrant women have subsequently filed a lawsuit against the doctor, who has denied the allegations.

The examples mentioned above are far from exhaustive, and they prove that one need only look at the pages of U.S. history — not some imagined future world — to find grave crimes against reproductive freedom. Yet Atwood herself revealed she almost stopped writing The Handmaid’s Tale several times because she felt it was “too far-fetched.” When people use this novel as their reference point for our current moment, well-meaning though they may be, their words evoke all the shortcomings of white feminism. One can’t help but feel these memes, tweets, posts, and jokes carry the message that things are going to get worse – dystopian, even – but the stark reality is that reproductive freedom has been dystopian for many others for hundreds of years.

We are all grappling in our own ways to make sense of a deeply painful present moment. Words, symbols, and art can all act as outlets for rage, as well as poignant tools for building solidarity. So much can feel futile, but the references we choose to latch onto have real consequences for shaping the future of the reproductive justice movement. It is critical that the symbols of the reproductive justice conversation are not rooted in ignorance and a disconnect from the reality that many have already experienced — and will continue to face

Fighting for the future of bodily autonomy does not require a costume, and it does not require references to a fictional world inhabited solely by white women. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction — and the only way to win this fight is to face reality.

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