Blessed be the fruit, dear readers. May the Lord open.
Yesterday afternoon, as the Senate officially began its hearings on the bill to legalize abortion, the collective Periodistas Argentinas silently protested outside Congress, dressed in the iconic red cloaks of the Handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Faces partially obscured by white bonnets, the women formed rank outside the gates, unfurling the green pañuelos that have become emblematic of the pro-choice movement.
— M.A.F.I.A. (@HolaMAFIA) July 10, 2018
Anyone following the abortion debate as it rumbles through Congress cannot help but be struck by the worrying similarity that many of the arguments espoused by Senators share with the regime’s ideology in Atwood’s novel. The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian world where environmental catastrophe gave rise to the Republic of Gilead, a repressive society where women are reduced to their reproductive capacity, with the fertile “handmaids” forced relentlessly to “breed.”
So far, so nasty. However, the book, and the extremely successful HBO series, have acquired new pertinence in the wake of the Trump administration and the gradual scaling back of women’s rights globally. And while Argentina’s Lower House had taken a positive step in voting through, the debates in Senate have revealed a much more conservative view of women’s rights that have had the comparisons to Atwood’s tale coming thick and fast.
Senators Federico Pinedo and Miriam Boyadjian last week proposed a bill which would force women seeking an abortion to continue their pregnancies and give up the baby for adoption, which seems to have almost been lifted from the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the handmaids’ babies are handed over to wealthy families.
This followed Vice President Gabriela Michetti’s stunning declaration that pregnancies resulting from rape cases, one of the few situations in which abortion is currently legal in Argentina (and has been since 1921), should be carried to term with the child then put up for adoption. This statement was so controversial that Atwood herself called out Michetti’s extreme stance, imploring her to “Give argentinian [sic] women the right to choose!”
Vicepresident of Argentina @gabimichetti: don't look away from the thousands of deaths every year from ilegal abortions. Give argentinian women the right to choose! #AbortoLegalYa #QueElAbortoSeaLey #NiUnaMenos #AbortoEnSenadoYa @cdnwomenfdn @equalitynow
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) June 25, 2018
The links between Atwood’s dystopia and the debate in Argentina do not stop there. Gilead’s ideology is based on a warped, fundamentalist Christianity, where the ruthless police services are referred to as “Angels” and “Guardians of the Faith” and each sector of society wears uniforms inspired by Western religious iconography.
The renewed vigor of the pro-life movement in the past week has also seen an increase of activity from the big dogs of the Church, with a pro-life Mass on Sunday and the Archbishops of Tucumán and La Plata publically denouncing the bill. in which the arguments against the bill were framed within Catholic dogma.
This protest then, by female journalists, served as a reminder of how the debates within Congress have revealed a profound distrust of women and an outright negation of their rights over their own bodies and their silent protest evoked one of the novel’s most powerful lines: “Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.”
This protest followed the publication of an open letter from Margaret Atwood in UNO de Santa Fe, entitled “A Slave State?”, in which she makes the comparison explicit. “Women who cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have babies are enslaved,” she writes, “because the State claims ownership of their bodies and the right to dictate the use to which their bodies must be put.”
She also alludes to the discussion over the potential cost of offering abortions on the public health service, which has been offered as a reason to reject the bill. “If the State is mandating enforced childbirth, why should it not pay for prenatal care, for the birth itself, for postnatal care, and – for babies that are not sold off to richer families – for the cost of bringing up the child?” She then adds, “if the State is very fond of babies, why not honor the women who have the most babies by respecting them and lifting them out of poverty?
It is from this idea of recompensing women for having unwanted babies that she compares this proposal to the sexual slavery at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale. “I doubt that the State is willing to go so far as to provide the needed resources,” she writes. “Instead it just want to reinforce the usual cheap trick: force women to have babies, and then make them pay. And pay. And pay. As I said, slavery.” In depriving women of the right to choose, Atwood argues, the gift of life becomes “an extortion from them against their wills. She states that if life is a gift to be given freely, once the choice to give or receive it is taken away, it becomes “a symptom of tyranny.”
“No one is forcing women to have abortions. No one either should force them to undergo childbirth. Enforce childbirth if you wish, Argentina, but at least call that enforcing by what it is. It is slavery: the claim to own and control another’s body, and to profit by that claim.”
As the debate continues, both this protest and Atwood’s open letter serve as timely reminders of the dangers of imposing regulations on women’s bodies and sexuality. In her novel, it takes just five years to for Gilead to form; the controversial statements by Senators can be somewhat troubling. However, the dogged activism from the pro-choice movement gives hope that women’s rights will only improve as a result of this debate. Just remember, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”