Handmaids Tale Gets One Thing Very Wrong

Women are much less likely to conceive or have healthy pregnancies when abused.

Posted Apr 25, 2018

I’m anxiously waiting to see what happens in Season Two of The Handmaids Tale, the mini-series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel from 1985. My only regret is that the more I learn about risk, resilience, pregnancy and child development, the more I realize how much we have learned since Atwood penned her novel four decades ago. We now know that:

1. Women who experience the violence perpetrated against the Handmaids would be far less fertile than if the men in power left them with power over their own bodies.

2. The likelihood of premature births, low-birth weights and Caesarean sections would grow exponentially in a population of women being treated as horribly as the Handmaids. The stress of conception (that part of the series has to be seen to be believed) and then the tension of knowing your child will be taken from you, would result in less chance of successful pregnancies, not more. If the goal of the Republic of Gilead is to save the human race, their solution is not only morally reprehensible, it’s also founded on bad science.

3. Even if a child is conceived and born healthy, these children would have at least a 50-50 chance of struggling to do well in school and would be more likely to grow up with significant emotional and behavioral problems directly linked to the stress their mothers experienced while the child was in utero.

A society like the one portrayed in The Handmaids Tale would not solve its diminishing birth rate. Beyond the human rights debacle such a society represents, it would likely be undermined by simple biology.

Of course, women do conceive in violent situations, even as a consequence of rape. And not all of those children grow up to be failures. While that may be the case, these are exceptions, outliers within any population where there can be a range of outcomes. Colleagues of mine who are experts in the developmental origins of health and disease have provided convincing evidence that maternal stress during pregnancy results in changes in genetic regulation in the child and that these changes predict negative socio-emotional outcomes during early childhood. These disadvantages begin in the womb after conception. Prenatal and postnatal factors change the way a child’s genes are triggered, altering developmental trajectories related to health and behavior. We have known this for some time with regard to a mother’s consumption of alcohol and the possibility that her child develops Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Indeed, the lesson is the same for exposure to violence. This process of biological embedding means that a wide array of stressors, like an unstable home, racism, and of course domestic or political violence, can get under the skin of the mother, work its way through the placenta, and wallop a child’s stress response system while still in utero, causing a cascade of maladaptive long-term consequences.

If The Handmaid’s Tale was to ever exist (it arguably does in parts of the world already), the result would surely be a society of delinquent individuals with severe adjustment problems. If one thinks of places on Earth where women are the most oppressed, it is not difficult to see that their children also show signs of increased violence. While there are many factors that can link these two observations, biological embedding of stress during pregnancy is a likely culprit that can explain some of the disordered behaviors that are observed at a population level where violence against women is rampant. One or two generations in, one can hardly imagine Gilead being able to sustain itself. In other words, Atwood’s world would have lasted just a short time, even if children did manage to get born.

Maybe there are some lessons to be learned from this. After all, the real magic of Atwood’s novel wasn’t its representation of facts. It was the way it forced us to look clearly at what happens when religious zealots (of any religious persuasion) take control and impose their ideology on everyone through violent means. Whether that is the Islamic State in Northern Syria, fundamentalist Christians who become apologists for Fascism, marauding Buddhists committing genocide in Myanmar, or the militant ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel, if these societies perpetuate violence on those who don’t choose of their own free will to be followers, the result can only be a very stressed generation of women who within a short period of time are giving birth to a very stressed population of under-performing children. These are not sustainable societies. Or more specifically, they are not likely to be societies that advance the human condition because of the number of traumatized individuals. They can only maintain the status quo as there is so little human capital capable of achieving anything new. In a society beset with chaos, the best it can do is devote all of its resources to maintaining control of its people through its police, its government and of course its clergy.

It’s time religious zealots (like those of Gilead) studied human biology and asked themselves if they want short-term or long-term success. We can thank Atwood for her prescient understanding of what our society could become when the intolerant take power armed with a holy book.

What about Surrogacy?

There is, though, one odd twist to this story. Though controversial, surrogacy may actually be a viable way of increasing the birth rate without causing traumatized children. In this regard, Atwood may have opened the door to a scientifically sound fact that is today politically contested. I am aware, for example, of a good many arguments against surrogacy, and the potential it has to commodify women and their reproductive function. However, there is some research to suggest that women who volunteer to be surrogates (even if they are paid for their service) and perceive their experience as of some benefit to the adoptive parents or to society as a whole would not feel stressed and would produce healthy children who go on to function quite normally. Atwood hints that there are some such women in Gilead, just as there are women who willingly joined ISIS. In the case of Gilead, these would be the children most likely to bond with the wives of the elites who can’t have children themselves.

It is remarkable how well Atwood was able to predict the future. The Handmaids Tale may not be easy to read or watch, but it is certainly worth the effort. Even if science has moved forward, the essence of the story is even more relevant today than it was decades ago.

References

Blyth, E. (2007) “I wanted to be interesting. I wanted to be able to say ‘I've done something interesting with my life’”: Interviews with surrogate mothers in Britain. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 12(3), 189-198.

Dunkel Schetter, C. (2011). Psychological science on pregnancy: Stress processes, biopsychosocial models, and emerging research issues. Annual Review of Psychology 62, 531–558.

Gluckman, P. D., Hanson, M. A. & Beedle, A. S. (2007). Early life events and their consequences for later disease: a life history and evolutionary perspective. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 19, 1–19.

Jadva, V., Imrie, S., & Golombok, S. (2015). Surrogate mothers 10 years on: a longitudinal study of psychological well-being and relationships with the parents and child. Human Reproduction, 30(2), 373–379.