Court Ruling Roe vs. Wade: A Modern Handmaid's Tale?
BY TORI BELL '26
The Guardian once reported that an unburnable copy of a book sold for $130,000 at an auction. You may be asking yourself, why would you ever need an unburnable book? Recently, public institutions have pushed to ban books under the fear that these books spark controversy, deeply halting the rich legacy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a novel so iconic and well-known. Its gruesome yet scary resemblance to the real world conveys people in power and their tactics. But most of all, the book leaves its legacy as a metaphor for the impacts of sexism, including the infringement of reproductive rights after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and a cautionary tale on how to run a society.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are stripped away of their freedoms after the inception of the Republic of Gilead, where women are considered inferior to men. Among the social classes, commanders are the highest ranking men in Gilead, and the women made to be surrogates for the commanders and their wives are known as handmaids.
Atwood explores ideas about reproductive rights throughout the novel, and they leave a legacy in today’s world. In one part of the book, the main character, Offred, and another handmaid, Ofglen, are walking together since handmaids must walk in pairs–a governmental attempt to control women. Handmaiden names also begin with “Of” and the name of their commander. Offred and Ofglen see the Wall, known for housing dead bodies that the government prominently displays, as a stark reminder of what happens if you dissent. The men hanged that day “wear white coats, like those worn by doctors or scientists…Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human foetus…In the time before...such things were legal.”
These men, known as Gender Traitors, were hung for performing abortions, which are illegal in the book. This legacy is carried into the real world because of the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, which previously established abortion as a constitutional right. However, with its overturn, the right to an abortion is no longer guaranteed by the Constitution; state rights can be abused by lawmakers who create abortion bans to limit women’s freedom. Similarly, in Gilead, since abortion is illegal due to the declining amount of births, women are forced to carry their babies to term against their will. In the introduction, Atwood describes this rule in gruesome detail: “Under totalitarianisms – or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society – the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids.”
This quote explains that in the book, men of the regime desire ownership of women for their own gain, which in this case, is having more children. This ties with the recurring theme of control in the novel. Right when the new republic laws started to be enforced, the people who lived in Gilead owned cards that were used to make purchases. The government made women dependent on men in this regard, freezing all cards belonging to women but still making them available by a woman’s husband or male relatives. Additionally, Moira, Offred’s close friend, said to Offred that “women can’t hold property any more.”
In the real world, the overturn of Roe v. Wade similarly monopolizes women. In an article from Boston University, BU law professor Linda McClain claims “[she] would not be surprised” if the court eventually bans birth control products and predicts that somewhere in the future, “women who suffer miscarriages could…[face] suspicion or scrutiny.” Additionally, according to the New York Times, “Abortion is banned with no exceptions for rape or incest” in several states, especially in the South. Limiting abortion is problematic, and doing so for situations like rape, where the fetus is unwanted and the victim is traumatized, is unethical. Women make up the majority of raped individuals, with some being underage. Young children are unable to safely give birth as their bodies are not fully developed yet; furthermore, it would be challenging for teenagers to balance their social and school life when they have to take care of a baby. According to the CDC, more than 50% of teen mothers never graduate from high school. Along with all of those tribulations, carrying an unwanted baby is a traumatizing experience that forever lingers. According to an article, women can develop PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and experience mood swings, panic attacks, crying spells, and other emotional responses after the assault. Rape can also bring an emotional toll on the children, who can experience feelings of guilt and unworthiness causing many serious mental illnesses and difficulties later on in life.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a stark and scary cautionary tale on what happens when you impose limits on marginalized groups of people. The dystopian depictions that are present resonate with today’s world, leaving a lasting legacy so touching that a reader decades later can feel the bristling horrors and make a real-life connection to it. No matter what hardships you go through, remember this piece of advice from the novel: “nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, or, “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”