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The Christian Theocratic Agenda Imposed on the Bodies of America's Poor Women

Laws around the country, especially in the South, are relegating women to mere child-bearing vessels.

Photo Credit: Twonix Studio/


In 1986 Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel portrays a dystopian vision of the U.S. in the “near future”, a country transformed by religious extremists into a totalitarian theocracy, renamed the Republic of Gilead. It’s organizing principle – One Nation, Under One God. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a hierarchical, exclusively Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious conservatism.

In a world where environmental pollution has rendered a substantial portion of the population sterile, fertility is a treasured commodity. The small minority of women who are fertile are forced to become de-eroticized baby-making machines, empty childbearing vessels. Their bodies are hidden and their brains are denied. Handmaids are women who have committed gender crimes or otherwise broken social rules and conventions. Because they are fertile they aren’t punished with banishment, instead they are ‘re-educated’ to accept their new role as Handmaids. In Gilead, women are not allowed to use their minds – they’re forbidden from reading, working outside the home, or even spending money.

The book was published during the height of the Reagan era, its condemnation of the political goals of religious conservatives was criticized at the time as unfair and overly paranoid, however events over the past few years now make the novel seem eerily prescient. In a  recent interview the author describes the themes she was exploring in the novel:

If you wanted to seize power in the US, abolish liberal democracy and set up a dictatorship, how would you go about it? What would be your cover story? It would not resemble any form of communism or socialism: those would be too unpopular. It might use the name of democracy as an excuse for abolishing liberal democracy: that’s not out of the question, though I didn’t consider it possible in 1985.

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. … The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.

Like any theocracy, this one would select a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions, and it would lean heavily towards the Old Testament, not towards the New. Since ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services, and as it is one of the axioms of the novel that fertility in the industrialised west has come under threat, the rare and desirable would include fertile women – always on the human wish list, one way or another – and reproductive control. Who shall have babies, who shall claim and raise those babies, who shall be blamed if anything goes wrong with those babies? These are questions with which human beings have busied themselves for a long time.

These questions are definitely ones legislators and judges are busying themselves with today, especially in the southern region, and while we have not officially experienced a Christian-inspired coup to suspend the constitution and take away women’s rights as described in the novel, many states are well on the way to creating Gilead-like conditions, at least with respect to women’s reproductive rights. Over the past three years states have passed severe new restrictions on abortion. In 2011–2013,  legislatures in 30 states enacted 205 abortion restrictions—more than the total number enacted in the entire previous decade. The political debate over the Affordable Care Act has enabled anti-choice activists to renew their assault on insurance coverage for certain forms of contraception considered by them to be abortifacients. Though science has refuted these claims, such evidence is apparently irrelevant since the  U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of corporations and certain nonprofits to raise religious freedom objections to their legal obligation to provide such coverage.

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