When asked if her novels are science fiction, Margaret Atwood pushes back. She prefers the label speculative fiction, meaning “a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth.” In other words, she is an extrapolator of ideas already present. Atwood simply takes themes and movements around her to their logical conclusion.
At the moment, Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is particularly relevant. Thanks to a new adaptation produced by Hulu and a political climate where reproductive rights are under attack, the novel is seeing a surge in popularity.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the United States. The near-future society is strictly divided by class, gender, and fertility status. Fertile women (handmaids) are given to wealthy men in order to bear children, and all other women are not allowed to reproduce.
While the puritanical Gilead seems like impossible fiction, Atwood argues that the book’s principles of reproductive control are already becoming reality. At the New York City’s Book Con, she spoke out against abortion restrictions. She specifically referred to Texas’s Senate Bill 8. SB8 has already been passed by the state Senate and House, and Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign it into law.
The omnibus bill bans “partial-birth abortions,” a misleading name for late-term dilation and extraction, a rare abortion procedure only performed when the mother’s life is a risk. It also bans dilation and extraction, which is the most commons second-trimester abortion procedure.
In addition, SB8 restricts the way health care facilities can dispose of fetal tissue. Any fetal remains, whether from abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth, must now be cremated or buried. Clinics or hospitals will no longer be allowed to donate fetal tissue to medical research.
Margaret Atwood sees the abortion restrictions in Texas as state-mandated reproduction without support for mothers and their children. She explained that when the state fails to provide a safety net for families while forcing women to have children, both maternal mortality rates and childhood poverty will rise.
She concluded, “It is really a form of slavery to force women to have children that they cannot afford and then to say that they have to raise them.”
Unfortunately, the data backs up her claims. Since 2011, Texas has been introducing increasingly tight abortion restrictions, including disqualifying abortion providers from participating in Medicaid. In addition to performing abortions, these providers are a primary source of birth control among low-income women. As a result, the birth rate among women on Medicaid increased by roughly 27%. Maternal mortality rates also began to rise in 2011.
While Atwood sees a clear trend in Texas towards reproductive control akin to The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a major difference. Women in Gilead are cared for. Atwood is expecting women and their families to fight against what she sees as a form of reproductive slavery.
The families of women who died in childbirth will soon be suing, she explained. “I’m also waiting for a lawsuit that says if you force me to have children I cannot afford, you should pay for the process,” Atwood continued.
“If you’re drafted into the army, the other situation in which the state seizes control of your body, at least you get three meals a day, clothing, and a place to sleep. So, if you’re going to do that to women, pay up.”