Wednesday June 14, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale: A new uniform for women's rights protests

Activists dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale chant in the Texas Capitol Rotunda as they protest SB8.

Activists dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale chant in the Texas Capitol Rotunda as they protest SB8. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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More than a dozen pro-choice activists filed into the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday to protest a bill on abortion. Drawing inspiration from Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, they wore red cloaks and white bonnets while sitting silently in the front row of a hearing room.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 145, would ban a method of abortion called dilation and evacuation. It's the most common used abortion procedure during the second trimester, explains protest organizer Jaime Miracle. She's the Deputy Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.

It's not the first time that the stark imagery of The Handmaid's Tale has been embraced by pro-choice protesters around the United States. Miracle spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the idea. Here's a part of that conversation:

JAIME MIRACLE: Texas was the first state to do this. We were definitely inspired by the great work that those folks did down in Texas. ... A group in Missouri has also used it in their statehouse to protest similar abortion bans and abortion restrictions in their state. This is definitely something that has kind of crept across the nation as states have gone after access to abortion most recently.

Texas Legislature

SB8 would require health-care facilities, including hospitals and abortion clinics, to bury or cremate any fetal remains whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

It really isn't just about this bill either. Ohio has passed 18 different restrictions on access to abortion care since 2011 — forcing almost half of our clinics to close. So, women are being forced to wait longer to get access to care or even to travel out of state. If you don't have the resources to travel out of state, or travel two hours to a clinic, you're already kind of like in The Handmaid's Tale — forced to give birth without your consent.

HELEN MANN: Why do you think that the "handmaid" protest is getting so much attention. You know we've got other groups, Code Pink on Capitol Hill — lots of other similar kinds of protest groups on issues like this. Why is this one sort of tweaking people's imagination?

JM: I think it's new and different. It hasn't really been done before. The Texas group, to my knowledge, was the first one to really use it in a kind of large scale protest.

"They are amazing people who speak out all the time. So, the fact that they sat there silently — for almost two hours — was a stretch for them" - Jaime Miracle

I think the silence is also a big piece. That was something we had talked about with our advocates because the women who were dressed in the handmaids costumes yesterday are some of our most vocal, outspoken activists. They're our clinic escorts. They are amazing people who speak out all the time. So, the fact that they sat there silently — for almost two hours — was a stretch for them as well. But, knowing that sometimes silence and visual can be a more powerful protest than, you know, a typical rally with signs and chants and those kinds of things.

Books-Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood is the author of The Handmaid's Tale. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

HM: Now you yourself have just started reading The Handmaid's Tale for the first time. What is it like to read that book at this particular moment in history?

JM: You know I actually thought about not reading it right now because I do this work everyday and it's hard to do. So, sometimes you need to escape into your books. But … it's a popular thing right now and I'm also one of those people who likes to read the book before seeing any media representations. … You know, everybody always says, "Oh, this is getting into The Handmaid's Tale territory." Reading the book, how much this really is getting into that territory. And how we really are creating these different classes of women — some of them who have control over their lives and some who very much do not.

HM: You, yourself have just started reading The Handmaid's Tale for the first time. What is it like to read that book at this particular moment in history?

JM: I actually thought about not reading right now because I do this work every day and it's hard to do. So, sometimes you need to escape into your books. It's a popular thing right now. And, I'm also one of those people who likes to read the book before seeing any media representations.

Everybody always says, oh, this is getting into The Handmaid's Tale territory ... reading the book, how much we really are creating these different classes of women — some of them who have control over their lives and some who very much do not.  

HM: How likely is it that the Ohio legislature will pass this bill?

JM: We have anti-choice super-majorities in both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate. I'm sure they have the votes to get it passed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Jaime Miracle, listen to the audio above.