When is a womb not a womb? The Handmaid’s Tale, retold

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a train, munching snacks, and working rather ineffectually on my laptop. In a moment of serendipity, since I had just left some dear friends in Cambridge and had regaled them with tales about the interesting people that I’ve met on trains over the years (including a Catholic priest from New York with whom I spent a fascinating hour discussing the Virgin Mary), on walked a priest, two nuns, and a group of young adults, fresh from a Catholic convention. 

After having smiled to myself at the coincidence of being surrounded once again with such elegantly-robed and pious travelling companions, I focused once again on my laptop, trying not to eavesdrop on the conversation happening at my table, but failing miserably. 

What I heard was unnerving. 

The young man sat beside me seemed to be some sort of psychological practitioner who worked with people after trauma, and those with mental health conditions. The young woman opposite seemed to be studying Biochemistry at university. 

They began a very loud discussion about abortion legislation.

Now, this was a brave move of course. It takes a very confident person, convinced of their opinion, to air their views about abortion freely in a train carriage, whatever those views might be. Their conversation went something like this.

Her: I’m strongly pro-life, and I don’t see how that could be contested. Once a life exists, it has rights separate from its mother.

Him: So would you ever condone abortion? Say, if the woman had become pregnant through rape?

Her: No. Not unless the woman’s life was in danger.

Him: But I’ve counselled rape victims who have been suicidal. Isn’t that a danger to the woman’s life?

Her: Well had she attempted suicide or not? If not, her life isn’t in imminent danger.

Him: Some have. Others are seriously considering suicide. Isn’t abortion justified to save the mother?

Her: No, not unless she’s actually attempted it. 

Here, they engaged in a circular discussion about whether ‘feeling suicidal’ actually counts. I summarise:

Him: If you saw the results of trauma that I see, and the women that are broken through and through, you might think differently.

Now here was the bomb –

Her: This is why my research is so exciting. We’re working on ways of being able, in the future, to sustain developing foetuses outside of women’s bodies. It’s already being tested on premature lambs.

This, of course, is true, as this Guardian article reported in April –


Any means of keeping alive a premature baby would obviously be welcome for those desperate, and devastated, parents. But this young scientist was not discussing premature babies. She was discussing early-stage pregnant women in want of a termination. 

And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a pregnant, raped woman, is (probably) in want of an abortion. 

Her: If we can create this technology, there will be no need for pregnant rape victims to suffer or be suicidal. We can develop ways of sustaining the life of the baby outside her body. 

 My blood ran cold.

This young, highly intelligent woman from a UK university, appeared to be proposing – in the middle of this railway carriage – the extracting of foetuses from raped women, most likely against their will, and taking ‘state ownership’ of those foetuses, to be grown in biobags and set forth into the world in whichever way that ‘authority’ deemed fit. 

I thus found myself in a Network Rail Dystopia.

Science, in the wrong hands, can have devastating consequences, as Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood have shown only too well. 

The idea of forcibly operating on a woman, violating her body for a perhaps second time, sent chills through me on that warm summer’s evening. That’s before we even begin to consider the theft of a person’s genetic property. I know that’s not what Shakespeare meant when he described Macduff as being “untimely ripp’d from [his] mother’s womb”, but the image seems fitting nonetheless. I was journeying to King’s Lynn, birthplace of Margery Kempe (1373-c.1440), to give a public talk about Kempe’s life, book, and body. And Kempe is known to have been violated by her own husband time and again, trapped in the Christian marriage debt, until he agreed to take a vow of chastity when she was around forty. 

Not only that, but Atwood’s famous 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which tells the story of the ‘handmaid’, Offred, used only for her fertility and efficacious womb, was then airing on Channel 4 in HBO’s big-budget adaptation, starring the talented Elisabeth Moss. 

Oh, how the universe plays its hand.

Women’s bodies continue to dominate media debates in 2017. The Rotherham teenage girl abuse saga saw a plethora of vulnerable young women trafficked and forced to “pay their way” by prostituting themselves (here). The recent furore over northern Irish abortion laws saw the DUP fight in Belfast’s highest court to prevent women from terminating pregnancies caused by rape or where a foetus is deemed to have life-threatening deformities (here). The U.S. Trumpian-metamorphosis is seemingly determined to control the female body by requiring male permissions to terminate pregnancies (here), and the Indian government recently debated legislation surrounding marital rape (here). Apparently, giving wives the right to accuse their husbands of rape would destabilise ‘the family’.

Well. That would never do.

According to the World Health Organisation, 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) where, for “cultural reasons”, girls are tortured and their bodies permanently and excruciatingly-injured by acts of violence to their genitalia (here).

The ‘debate’ over women’s bodies is as fuelled in 2017 as it has been from time immemorial. Since Eve was, indebtedly, ‘plucked’ from Adam’s own side, in fact. 

Despite one hundred years of women’s rights movements – our audacious quest to be equal and autonomous – our postmodern world continues to be dominated by patriarchies, and by the atavistic notion that the female body can somehow be “owned” by the social machine. 

The HBO remaking of Atwood’s chilling The Handmaid’s Tale is therefore every bit as current now, as with its biblical antecedents. 

It’s been a long time since I first read the novel, but I remember it, strangely, in sometimes cinematic detail. For those unfamiliar with the text, Atwood charts the story of June, or Offred (literally Of Fred), who has been ripped from her husband and daughter during a ‘Revolution’ which sees the instigation of a theocratic and atavistic regime which is radically patriarchal and tyrannical.

This dystopian society is one where women are dissected – only partly, in the metaphorical sense – into separate, female functions. Wives. Maids. Cooks. Prostitutes. Childbearers. Or handmaids. Derived from biblical accounts of the handmaids Zilpah and Bilah, recounted in Genesis, the historical existence of the handmaid is far from fictional. Even the Virgin Mary is described as the handmaiden of God when she is visited at the Annunciation. The woman who serves – with her body – has been *honoured* from antiquity. 

In the novel, Ofwarren “succeeds” in producing a baby for her Commander and his wife. The TV serialisation portrays the giving-up of that baby in gut-wrenching style. The baby cries, as Ofwarren processes through a line of handmaids waiting outside the house. The discord of her supposed success with the visceral agony of the mother-child separation was difficult to watch. But to add to the torture, Ofwarren immediately becomes Ofdaniel… To be raped and violated again, and finally to object – to crouch in a corner like a terrified animal – whilst the viewer bears witness, with dread, knowing that her mental illness will be treated with execution. 

The disabled, or impaired, are not desired in Gilead. 

The handmaids are subjected to monthly rape in the quest for procreation for the national good. When Offred isn’t being publicly raped by her Commander during the ritualistic procreation ceremony, she is “groomed” by him in his shadowy study. For the reward of some cerebral activity, like playing Scrabble, Offred is indebted such that she accompanies him to the underground brothel, Jezebels, where she not only meets her dear friend Ofglen (now enslaved to prostitution), but is subjected to further rape by the Commander under the auspices of a less formalised – more ‘erotic’ – setting. 

Of course, the irony is that Offred is forced to use her sexuality to attempt some form of freedom, if not escape. Left with only the clothes on her back after the Revolution, she is literally reduced to an essence of body and soul – a human being – and a helpless refugee in the hands of a brutal theocracy. 

Medieval manuscripts frequently reduced the female body to its interior essence, depicting the uterus outside the body, emphasising its importance as an organ of extra-feminine significance. University physicians of the Middle Ages were more concerned with the reproductive system than women’s health, per se, and the survival, and position of the foetus overrode any extraneous detail in these drawings, such as maternal wellbeing, as this image depicts:

But after Atwood’s futuristic imagining of a world where women, far from gaining equality with their male counterparts, are segregated and categorised in terms of domestic or physiological purpose, something chilling remains, some 30 years after its publication. 

During a recent conversation with a pro-life activist, I was asked, “what about the father? What about his rights?”

All life is precious. But, as I explained to this person, the ‘fact’ of the matter, quite literally, is that Mother Nature decided to put wombs in women. And anything that grows in there is, de facto, a part of her. 

Fathers / the Father / indeed, the ‘Fatherland’, as some regions still embody and uphold, must never be permitted to colonise the womb. 

Some continue to try. But for our daughters’ sakes, we must resist. 

Offred encapsulates this perfectly: 

“It’s their fault. They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”.

One thought on “When is a womb not a womb? The Handmaid’s Tale, retold

  1. fantastic. and I know what you mean about the cinematic quality of handmaid’s tale. I read it when it first came out in the 80s and it has stayed one of main books that has influenced my life. I still have images in my head which are more like photographs of elements of the book.


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