Breda O’Brien: Surrogacy is a dystopian reality

Horrors in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ reflect how surrogacy sees women as walking wombs

Elizabeth Moss (R) as Offred in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Given that there is a bombastic egomaniac in the White House promising fire and fury, as North Korea threatens to bomb Guam, it is not surprising that sales of dystopian fiction are flourishing.

Among feminists, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, particularly the recent television adaptation, is frequently compared to Trump's US, and in some cases to today's Ireland.

So, Ireland of the past is directly comparable to Atwood’s Gilead, a theocratic totalitarian State run by a Protestant Evangelical sect where rape is ritualised as a religious ceremony, babies with disabilities are nicknamed “shredders” because they are routinely subjected to euthanasia, torture is a daily occurrence and women are not even permitted to read?

Those putting forward such analogies would appear to have skipped the Irish women in history module, particularly the role of Catherine McAuley, Nano Nagle and Mary Aikenhead in educating women and caring for the poor.


Perhaps I also skipped the feminist manual where it is permitted to focus only on the egregious and real failings of small number of these women’s followers, and to ignore, for example, that by 1870, 300 impoverished girls were being educated on Baggot Street under Catherine McAuley’s care.

Countless thousands of Irish women would never have learned to read without her or without the selfless women who followed her example.

Oddly enough, in Atwood’s novel, Catholic nuns are particularly persecuted and are described as being the most broken of handmaids, so broken that even other handmaids prefer not be paired with them for the daily walk to the shops.

The feet of those who used to be Catholic nuns are always mangled, because whipping women’s feet until they are bloody lumps is a preferred tactic used by the Aunts on women who challenge the regime.

Miserable Irish Catholic dystopia

But never mind what happens in the book, or in history. To paraphrase Frank McCourt, for the current generation of Irish feminists, it appears that worse than the ordinary miserable Atwood dystopia is the miserable Irish dystopia, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic dystopia.

Strangely, most feminists prefer to ignore the most obvious comparison of all in the novel to our culture today.

One of the most troubling scenes in the novel is when Janine, or Ofwarren as she is known because she is the handmaid assigned to a commander named Warren, gives birth, but her baby is taken from her while she is still trembling and shaking from labour and immediately handed to Warren’s grey-haired wife, who is celebrated as the mother.

Atwood has written a perfect parody of pompous academics who cannot step outside their own cultural relativism to denounce horrors

Feminists today decry the utter misogyny of this fictional surrogacy. Few acknowledge that while acting as a surrogate was chosen by the handmaids only because the alternative was clearing up toxic waste in a colony, women today often act as surrogates only because they have no other choice.

Offred, the novel’s viewpoint character, bitterly refers to handmaids as two-legged wombs. Contemporary surrogacy treats women as two-legged wombs, blissfully unaffected by carrying a baby and handing it over.

Women who sell their eggs in order to facilitate surrogacy are almost invisible. There are no longitudinal studies on the impact on healthy young women of using fertility drugs, or the impact on long-term health, even though anecdotally, they suffer higher rates of cancer and infertility.

Gestational carriers

Atwood explicitly refers to the rise of surrogacy in the 1980s in her novel, although she puts it in the mouth of the obnoxious professor, James Darcy Pieixoto. The novel’s last section consists of a 2195 symposium of historians discussing Gilead (which has obviously not survived) complete with sexist puns from the keynote speaker, Pieixoto.

Pieixoto cautions about passing moral judgements on the Gileadeans, saying that “Surely we have learnt that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.”

His audience applauds. Atwood has written a perfect parody of pompous academics who cannot step outside their own cultural relativism to denounce horrors.

It is important to denounce fictional horrors, or indeed the real horrors of the way women were treated in Magdalene laundries.

But it seems much more difficult to query Kim Kardashian’s reported purchase of a surrogate’s services for an alleged $70,000. (Or should I use the preferred newspeak term, gestational carrier?)

I haven’t heard too many feminists querying whether the clauses routinely built into surrogacy contracts apply in this case, such as waiving all parental rights, agreeing to medically unnecessary Caesareans or abortion in the case of a baby with disabilities.

The latter has strong echoes of Gilead’s designation of babies with disabilities as shredders, but apparently not enough for the majority of feminists to notice or denounce.