A Handmaid’s Documentary

By Amy Gray

It shouldn’t be surprising that Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale. Not just because her book has renewed interest with the tv series, but because real life feels like an express ticket to Gilead.

This was definitely the case in Ohio when Republican State Representative Christina Hagan introduced a “Heartbeat Bill” that would ban all abortions after six weeks which is when a fetal heartbeat can be heard. It’s a canny time frame, given medical professionals often won’t perform abortions until a fetus can be seen via ultrasound (and, natch, this happens after the six week marker).

Hagan’s point is loud and clear: she is seeking to ban abortion, but she really drove home the point by arguing for the ban while holding her twin infants. The double sling across her chest as she held the microphone was a deliberate attempt to push the myth that mothers are good and anyone who doesn’t want it is an evil killer.

It’s something that touches a local nerve, given when Australians aren’t campaigning for reproductive rights, we’re campaigning to stop a politician using them as a bargaining chip.

Often, our conversations about abortion rest on the notion that patriarchy wants to restrict women’s choice in order to control women’s bodies. But there’s greater nuance there that we should explore.

We have to consider that a lot of the discrimination women face is seen through the filter of motherhood. It doesn’t matter if the woman is a mother or not -  people actually want to consider women in a state of perpetual pregnancy, their fertility and choice a ticking time bomb that must be contained and controlled.

Women are primed from birth through toys and entertainment that their main goal in life is motherhood. Sure, they may come across some “empowering” messages that tell them they can have it all – but they’re reminded that part of that “all” must include motherhood.

Whether or not women accept that conditioning, they are still punished either being mothers or an assumption motherhood is imminent or inevitable. Perhaps her marital status is subtly questioned in an interview (because attachment to a man means children will come), or she’s denied job opportunities because at any moment she may get pregnant which – despite society’s demand that she should – she is then punished for with reduced promotion, hours or rights.

Should a woman become pregnant, she learns her rights are not only behind that of men, but also the collection of cells we would call a embryo. How is it that cells have more rights than the person creating them? Simply: diagnostic tools like ultrasounds which make them seem more human than the expanding cells actually are. As Professor Meredith Nash has noted, the obsession with sonogram and other technologies that allow us to visibly track a fetus’ development has corresponded with their use to shame women into continuing pregnancies (like a plan in Indiana forcing women to view an ultrasound before they can access an abortion procedure).

This continues after birth, with many women finding themselves made redundant on maternity leave or prevented from resuming their job. Their motherhood, an additional tag to their identity, is used to frame their entire professional life and not only places them secondary to men but subtle infers their real job isn’t the one that gives a weekly pay or superannuation, but of raising children.

For women in the home, it’s a time fraught with an increase in domestic violence and decreased options to leave or have any sort of security for herself or her children.

When you look at all the connections, motherhood appears to be one of the easier ways of controlling all women whether they’ve had kids or not. It becomes a lever that can be pulled to prevent them from financial security, education, or social and political participation.

So of course, forced pregnancy is both a political aim and dystopian nightmare for Atwood. It’s a way to control women and remind them who really has it all: not them.


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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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