“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to,” retells Offred in Part II, Chapter 6, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (p. 33).
Readers have just been introduced to public executions in Gilead: “Now we turn our backs on the church and there is the thing we’ve in truth come to see: the Wall” (p. 31). On this day,
The men [hangin from…hooks] wear white coats …. Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. … They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or — more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen — by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible. (pp. 32–33)
Atwood’s speculative theocracy is heavily grounded in a perverse worshipping of some women as possible vessels of childbirth since the birthrates of whites were in steep decline due to environmental toxins.
With a conservative shift in the Supreme Court in the United States under Trump, Georgia and Alabama have passed extreme anti-abortion laws, openly admitting they are designed to overturn Roe v. Wade — to make abortion once again illegal in the country.
Several aspects of these moves to deny women autonomy over their bodies are obscured by Orwellian language (“heartbeat legislation”) and rhetorical bows to protecting life. First, in countries where abortion is legal and safe, abortion rates are often lower than in countries banning abortion, but there are strong correlations also between legal abortion and overall health, safety, and autonomy of women.
In short, access to legal and safe abortion is a subset of overall healthcare for women.
Second, and this may be one of the more troubling realities of moves to ban abortion, these bans on abortion and the possible criminalizing of women and medical professionals (see the novel excerpts above) are never going to be realities for the wives, daughters, and mistresses of the wealthy white men passing the laws.
Throughout history in the U.S., as with all laws, wealthy women will always have access to abortions as well as overall healthcare for themselves and their children.
The current move to ban abortion in the U.S. is about other women — those women marginalized by their social class and race.
These laws may also criminalize miscarriages and birth control; they are designed to strike fear into the medical field and other women.
These first moves serve the same purpose as the Wall:
It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. (p. 32)
Aunt Lydia’s reassurance — ”It will become ordinary” — echoes a chilling tenet from Albert Camus’s The Stranger expressed by Meursault in prison:
Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)
Much of Atwood’s novel is about retelling the story of Offred’s life before and during Gilead — about how easily human dignity and human agency can be erased, slowly like a lobster in a boiling pot of water, or like a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly’” (p. 141).
In Trumplandia, as rightwing politicians pass anti-abortion laws, assaults on other women, we are now in the gradually.
Will this become ordinary — suddenly?