Photo depicting a crowd of women wearing the red garments and white hoods (called "wings") from The Handmaid's Tale kneeling with hands folded.

All Those ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Comparisons Ignore the Reality of Anti-Abortion Laws

by Megan Burbank

On Oct. 2, hundreds of activists gathered in Seattle’s Westlake Park to protest Texas’ six-week abortion ban, Senate Bill 8. Similar rallies took place in every state that day, in what the Women’s March framed as a response to “the most dire threat to abortion access in our lifetime.” Nationwide messaging from the Women’s March had encouraged attendees not to bring weapons, images of wire coat hangers, or Handmaid’s Tale-inspired costumes.

The message didn’t seem to land. No weapons were on display that sunny Saturday, but between the protest signs condemning SB 8 and appearances from speakers like former City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver, folks did show up in the unmistakable crimson robes of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, at one point splintering from the main rally to chant loudly in the street.

With the collision of the novel’s Hulu adaptation and protests following the 2016 election, the costumes have become ubiquitous in activist spaces. But recent skepticism indicates a shift toward a more intersectional approach to reproductive rights advocacy — one that doesn’t center the experiences of white women.

That’s the thinking behind the Women’s March messaging. “Handmaid’s Tale imagery has proliferated, primarily by white women, in recent years,” read a statement from the Women’s March posted to Twitter on Oct. 2. “This message erases the fact that Black, undocumented, incarcerated, poor, & disabled women have always had their reproduction controlled in America. It’s not some dystopian future or past.”

In fact, the situation the book describes, in which women have no control over their reproductive decisions, has parallels in the present — especially if you live in a state like Mississippi, which has only one abortion clinic. And given the historical link between eugenics, forced sterilization, and early birth control advocacy, racist constraints on reproductive freedom are a well-documented part of American history, lasting even into the 21st century. Treating Atwood’s book as a nightmare scenario ignores the seriousness of these realities.

It’s also worth remembering that The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and wasn’t really intended as speculative fiction. Atwood has famously said that everything in it draws on real-life events that had already happened by the time of its publication. 

The Women’s March is not alone in moving away from this decades-old text. According to Lisa Humes-Schulz, vice president of policy and regulatory affairs at Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, whose service area includes Washington State, Planned Parenthood is also disengaging from Handmaid’s Tale images, which she called “problematic because the show really centers on the plight of white women, who are not the people most harmed by restrictions to abortion care.”

But if moving away from the Atwood images suggests a growing awareness of deep-seated inequities when it comes to abortion access, another change in imagery — retiring the wire coat-hanger symbol — signifies recent medical developments involving self-managed abortion. The Women’s March explained it this way in the Oct. 2 Twitter thread: “We don’t use coat hangers or coat hanger imagery because we don’t want to accidentally reenforce [sic] right-wing talking points that self-managed abortions are dangerous, scary, and harmful,” the organization wrote.

Emerging medical data suggests the opposite may be true. A new study published in the Lancet Global Health following 1,000 patients who self-managed abortions found that 93.8% of patients who used a regimen of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol completed abortions without surgical intervention. The rate of success was even higher among patients using misoprostol alone: 98.8%. The study determined that for pregnancies of nine weeks’ gestation or under, self-managed abortion was as effective as an abortion managed by a clinician. 

“There is a misconception that self-managed abortion may somehow be unsafe, or less effective than clinician-managed medication abortion — this is simply untrue,” said the study’s lead author Heidi Moseson in a news release announcing the study’s findings. Moseson said the most significant risks facing patients who choose to self-manage abortions “are legal, such as criminalization and arrest, not medical.”

As Planned Parenthood’s Humes-Schulz put it: “People already safely and effectively self-manage their own abortions without a provider involved.”

In my own reporting, I’ve heard providers say the same thing. Today, self-managed abortion is most likely to involve pills, which can be ordered online through services like Hey Jane and AidAccess, although receiving the medicine through the mail remains complicated in abortion-hostile states.

If that seems like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale to you, it’s worth remembering that it’s also someone’s current lived reality.

Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.

📸 Featured image attributed to Victoria Pickering (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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