We often hear people invoke “The Handmaid’s Tale” when legislatures make changes to reproductive health policies. Many people have watched the Hulu show based on the novel written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. I have taught Atwood’s novel in my courses at the University of Iowa and students are amazed by the important nuances missed in the show and by readers of Atwood’s novel.
First, students realize that the impetus for the establishment of the Republic of Gilead—a theocratic government that arises after the fall of the United States—is a massive decline in the “Caucasian race.” Atwood places this critical detail in the book’s epilogue. Next students are surprised by the level of support the patriarchal Gilead receives from the women in this new society. In the years before Gilead, Serena Joy, one of the novel’s protagonists, is a rising religious star. A zealot, who champions a woman’s return to traditional gender roles as doting mother and dutiful wife, Serena and her husband, Commander Waterford, become leading figures in Gilead’s political hierarchy and owners of Offred—their handmaid. For students, the novel’s most indelible scenes remain the sexual assault “ceremonies.” The handmaids endure these rituals at the hands of the commanders watched over by their wives, because the handmaids are meant to birth Gilead’s next generation.
This fall semester, I will be sure to illuminate for students a parallel example of a Gilead-like policy in the state of Iowa. On April 7, 2023, Iowa’s attorney general Brenna Bird (R) halted funding for emergency contraception (Plan B) and abortion for survivors of sexual assault and rape. The funding for this reproductive health care to survivors of sexual assault comes from fines of those convicted of crimes and not taxpayer funding. Still, Iowa’s AG felt it necessary to “audit” the victim fund and cut off access to victims in need. Survivors of rape or incest who cannot afford this crucial reproductive health care will be forced to carry the product of this violence to term.
Bird touted her anti-woman stance from the campaign trail last year as she vowed to reinstate Iowa’s restrictive anti-abortion policy. She defeated long-time Democrat Tom Miller in the attorney general race last November. In an op-ed published in October 2022, Bird vowed to protect the entire state of Iowa from becoming “a Chicago or Minneapolis,” stating that “Those cities are plagued by crime and prosecutors who do not enforce our law, and who look for any reason to release dangerous criminals back on the streets.” She also made mention of the need to protect victims of crimes, writing: “We have to be there for the victims. The Attorney General’s office should also conduct an audit of all victim services to make sure victims and their families are receiving the support they need. Many victims I speak with are currently caught in a web of bureaucracy. They deserve better.” Less than four months after being sworn in, Bird suspended the very support survivors of violent crime need.
It should come as no surprise that Bird cut her political teeth as deputy chief of staff, and then chief of staff to Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. King was stripped of his congressional committee assignments after statements he made about sexual violence, reproduction, and population growth. During a 2019 event in Urbandale, Iowa, King stated: “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?” King was defending his stance denying access to abortion even in cases of rape or incest.
King’s position was met with derision and disgust at the time; Bird’s move to make his comments a reality in Iowa today have also made national headlines. And many have rightly connected them to a Gilead-inspired panoply of extremist GOP-backed laws and policies against reproductive freedom and gender-affirming care.
For many, the greatest surprise of making Iowa in the image of the Republic of Gilead is that, like in Atwood’s novel, women are leading the way. Lest we forget, Gov. Kim Reynolds is the lead plaintiff in the abortion restriction case now before the Iowa Supreme Court.
What’s worse is that the policies proposed and enacted by the state of Iowa seem to exceed even the most draconian laws in the fictional world of Gilead. The state’s GOP majority recently led legislative attacks against trans and non-binary children through gender-affirming care and bathroom bans. Bird’s recent attack against survivors of sexual assault similarly targets children, since juveniles represent the majority of sexual violence victims in the state. Iowa is fast exceeding even the most vicious representations of theocratic rule. Serena Joy and her ilk would be proud.
Lina-Maria Murillo, PhD
University of Iowa Assistant Professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, History, and Latina/o/x Studies