After the election of President Donald J. Trump, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, found a new audience, surging once again to popularity with a reappearance on best-seller lists and adaptations as a television drama and an opera.
The novel is set in a not-too-distant future in which fertile women are enslaved, raped and forced to bear children for the infertile wives of powerful men. Women living under the iron grip of that regime, set in a place that was formerly part of the United States, have no right to their own bodies. The plot presents an uncanny and unsettling projection just a bit further along the path from our own time.
Across the land, in states ruled by right-wing Republicans, women’s reproductive rights are being slashed and burned. Several legislatures have introduced severely restrictive anti-abortion bills designed to end up before the Supreme Court, which conservatives believe is poised to nullify Roe v. Wade.
Earlier this week, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, signed into law one such patently unconstitutional bill. That state became the latest to pass a so-called heartbeat bill, which will ban abortions after about the sixth week of pregnancy, when doctors can often detect a heartbeat from the fetus. That’s so early, however, that many women don’t even know they are pregnant.
Like his fellow right-wingers, Kemp claims that he is protecting the “innocent” and supporting the “right to life.” That’s just nonsense — a travesty revealed by statistics showing a lack of concern not only for children who emerge from the womb but also for the mothers who would care for them. Many of the states rushing to outlaw abortions have miserably high rates of child poverty, child mortality and maternal mortality.
The data rip away the professed concern for the “innocent,” the protestations of protection for children, the claims about the sanctity of life. Trump’s success in packing the courts with ultraconservatives has merely emboldened the misogynists who have long bristled at the progress women have made toward full equality over the last several decades. They want nothing less than to reverse the advance of women’s rights.
Georgia is just one example of that glaring hypocrisy. The United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality — deaths during pregnancy or childbirth or in the weeks just after — in the developed world, and Georgia has the second-highest rate in the U.S., according to USA Today, which conducted an extensive investigation into maternal mortality in this country. More women die in Georgia as a result of childbirth than in many developing countries.
According to the 2018 Health of Women and Children Report, Georgia ranks 34th in child mortality (16th from the bottom). And, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 25 percent of Georgia’s children are poor. Their lives would certainly be healthier if the GOP-controlled Legislature were to expand Medicaid, but it has adamantly refused to do so.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, my native state, ultraconservative Republicans are pushing to pass the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion law, a bill that would outlaw almost all abortions and put doctors at risk of 99 years in prison for performing one. But amid the declarations of protection for children and families, these facts stand out: Alabama ranks 44th (6th from the bottom) in child mortality; it ranks 49th in infant mortality; and 26 percent of its children live in poverty.
And then there’s Mississippi, which passed a so-called heartbeat law earlier this year. It’s one of the worst places in America for a child to grow up, especially if that child is black and poor. It has the nation’s highest rate of infant mortality; it has the second-highest rate of child mortality; and 31 percent of its children are impoverished.
There is no love for children among those clamoring to reverse reproductive rights. There is, instead, a barely concealed contempt for women, a resentment of laws that have given them the freedom to control their own bodies. Little wonder that The Handmaid’s Tale has become eerily relevant.