Reproductive Suppression and the Real ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Conversations around anti-abortion and Roe v. Wade compare it to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a futuristic dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985. The story centers on women impacted by a patriarchal society that, among other injustices, has stripped women from their reproductive rights. The novel turned into a TV show in 2016, boosting its popularity. But when discussing the loss of reproductive rights, it’s dismissive to reference a fictional show when its horrors have been – and still are – a reality for marginalized people. From the forced sterilization of disabled people, immigrants, and other people of color, to the inhumane reproductive experimentation on Black enslaved people, and the ongoing discrimination in reproductive care, there are many examples of how reproductive suppression already impacts marginalized groups.
When writing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood used real-life examples of reproductive suppression, white supremacy, and religious rule. In an interview with Penguin Random House, she shares all the newspaper clippings and other background research she collected for the book (Penguin). The book is rooted in injustices child-carrying people, including those marginalized, experienced. But both the book and the movie intentionally focus on white, cisgender, non-disabled women to emphasize a future rooted in white supremacy. It effectively erases all other marginalized identities from the story while leveraging their pain and heartbreak. We contribute to this erasure when we choose to platform a fictional, whitewashed tale instead of the real and violent history that marginalized people experience.
• Explore other fictional stories on reproductive justice, including ‘Lilith’s Brood” by Octavia Butler, ‘The Mothers” by Brit Bennett, “A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies, “The Farm by Joanne Ramos, and “The Kindest Lie” by Nancy Johnson. Explore these and more on Bookshop >
• Consider: What identities are often referenced when talking about reproductive rights? Which perspective(s) might I be most unfamiliar with?
Without a full understanding of the influence behind “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and by sharing quick quotes or screenshots from the show, it feels disingenuous to compare real-life events to a fictional story. Throughout history, the abortion rights movement has also centered white, cisgender, non-disabled people. We must remember to name that reproductive suppression is already present for marginalized people – and will only worsen if abortion rights are further diminished.
When you feel compelled to reference “The Handmaid’s Tale,” you can also educate about some of the reproductive injustices that helped shape the story, including:
The Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bellstated that the sexual sterilization of inmates of institutions was constitutional in 1927 (Oyez). From this decision, the government was allowed to sterilize people diagnosed with “imbecility, epilepsy, and feeblemindedness” for the “health of the patient and the welfare of society.”
James Marion Sims, a white doctor in Montgomery, Alabama, performed painful experiments without anesthesia on Lucy, an enslaved Black woman. Often referred to as the “father of modern gynecology,” Sims legitimized the notion that Black people do not feel pain and joined many other doctors who experimented on enslaved people.
Law 116, enacted in 1937, forced eugenics-based sterilization on child-carrying people in Puerto Rico. The U.S. believed that Puerto Rico was too overpopulated to have a stable economy, and the only way to lower the staggering unemployment rate was to decrease the population density. Sterilizations were often coerced, and many recipients were unaware the procedure was irreversible. A survey from 1965 showed that one-third of Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20–49, were sterilized (Liberal Currents).
The history of Indian Health Services performing forced or coerced sterilization on Indigenous people. Between 1973 and 1976, at least 3,406 American Indian women were sterilized without their permission. A study found that the Indian Health Service had “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures” (NIH).
If you, like me, appreciate learning from dystopian books, I encourage you to explore more stories written by authors from other perspectives! Author adrienne maree brown stated that “science fiction is a form of organizing, and all organizing is science fiction.” Our organizing, even when rooted in fiction, should reflect the narratives of those often removed from the conversation.
• With the latest news around abortion rights, some people have drawn comparisons between current events and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel and television series.
• Although the story itself is rooted in historical reproductive suppression, the plot centers on white cisgender, non-disabled women, disguising the most impacted people.
• It’s essential to educate ourselves and amplify stories of reproductive suppression and how it’s been disproportionately waged on marginalized child-carrying people.