Last week, a group of female protesters dressed as handmaids from the popular show "The Handmaid's Tale" ventured through the Ohio Statehouse in protest of Senate Bill 145, which would restrict abortion methods. Although protesting often involves hyperbole designed to make a point, this goes too far. Equating the abortion debate to a dystopian show where women are used as incubator slaves is intellectually dishonest––and, frankly, deeply offensive.
The bill they were protesting would ban dilation and evacuation procedures, which are exactly what they sound like––the cervix is dilated, and suction is used to get the fetus out. They've come under scrutiny in many states because they're used when the fetus is more developed, so laws restricting them are fairly common.
The bill is in no way the most stringent of anti-abortion measures, and it largely preserves the woman's so-called right to choose, as only about 14 percent of abortions in Ohio are performed using dilation and evacuation. Even if this bill passes, Ohio women will remain able to seek abortions for the entirety of the first trimester.
But the use of Handmaid's Tale imagery is designed to offend. The show is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name: in it, the theocratic Republic of Gilead has conquered the United States in the wake of a fertility epidemic. In Gilead, a group of red-robed women called handmaids must serve as human incubators for the upper class of politicians, via rape, centered around their monthly fertility cycle. Women cannot read, are unable to vote, and are not supposed to own property. Dissenters are hanged.
But we don't live in Gilead, abortion isn't an issue of oppression vs. enlightenment, and people of all ages and belief systems maturely engage with the abortion issue and come out on the pro-life side––not just men who want to control women. The majority of pro-lifers actually see it as a difficult decision where the rights of the mother are weighed against the rights of the fetus.
Some moral metrics, such as the non-aggression principle, don't decisively help adherents know whether abortion is okay––abortion opponents believe that the mother is using aggression against the fetus to forcibly remove it from her body. Meanwhile, abortion advocates believe the bodily autonomy of the mother outweighs that of the fetus, given that it can't even survive outside of the host's body.
For those who do not see abortion as an aggressive act, or don't believe in personhood until far later in a pregnancy, it's an uncomplicated decision. But many people are somewhere along the continuum: they fear making the wrong call for both mother and child, and it's hard to determine whose rights matter more at a given time.
In other words, it's not as simple as pro-lifers wanting to subjugate women to lives of subservience where they're denied basic rights. By dressing as handmaids, abortion advocates are making a false comparison. They're implicitly claiming that pro-lifers are anti-women and deeply oppressive.
In reality, most pro-lifers are not anti-woman, but worried about our society's callous disregard for matters of life and death. It's never been as simple as the slogans on each side: "My body, my choice," or "A person's a person, no matter how small." Both hold some truth, but neither show understanding of the fundamental convictions of the other side––pro-lifers fundamentally care more about the fetus than the mother's bodily autonomy, while pro-choicers don't believe the fetus is a person (partially due to the fact that it's too small and underdeveloped).
Of course, all protest is hyperbole. It's meant to evoke a reaction: bra burnings, flag burnings, Black Lives Matter's "hands up, don't shoot" imagery are all designed to make observers feel outraged or connected to a cause. But incendiary comparisons between pro-lifers and a ruling class of men who decided to use women as birthing chattel don't advance a pro-choice agenda: they advance yet another legislative session where people with valid points talk past each other, afraid of admitting nuance.
As a pro-life secular feminist, being compared to oppressive religious zealots from a dystopian Hulu show strikes a chord with me. These comparisons might feel clever to protesters, but they're needlessly melodramatic.
American women, for the most part, choose to have sex with full knowledge of potential consequences. They tend to have impressive access to birth control. If intimate partner abuse happens, there's a vast legal framework devoted to protecting victims. Comparing the plight of the American woman to the handmaids of Gilead takes for granted the relative equality we all enjoy––equality that isn't given to women in many parts of the world.
In countries like Algeria, police response to domestic abuse shows disregard for the safety of women. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is common, but hard to seek legal recourse for. A draft law in Iraq would go so far to legalize marital rape––similar to the strange, twisted impregnation "ceremony" done in The Handmaid's Tale. In the U.S., we can sleep soundly at night knowing a law like Iraq's would never be proposed, let alone passed.
We're far from donning red robes and becoming birthing machines, and there's no oppressive theocracy attempting to pull us back in time. Perhaps these protesters should be less self-centered and more intellectually honest if they want to achieve meaningful change. We don't live in Gilead, and there are few signs that we're in any imminent danger of turning into an oppressive theocracy.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is managing editor at Young Voices. She is a writer from Austin, Texas.
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