Is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a legitimate argument in a Parliamentary debate?

Orazio Gentileschi (1563—1639), ‘Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes’ (detail). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Orazio Gentileschi (1563—1639), ‘Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes’ (detail). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The American drama series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was recently cited several times as an argument in a House of Commons debate on abortion. What does it mean when Parliamentary debate on vital issues is carried out on the basis of fictional drama? Grace Dalton and Graham Harter consider the implications. We begin with Grace.

Several years ago, one of innumerable antagonistic replies to one of my comments on a public Facebook post about abortion referenced The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d not heard of at the time. Of course, I immediately read Wikipedia’s synopsis. I was exasperated (though unsurprised) to read that the novel imagines a near future in which “Christians” take over the US and impose a cruel totalitarianism, in which the few women who remain fertile (following a fertility crisis resulting from global pollution) are enslaved to produce offspring for the elite. The implication is that to deny abortion access is comparable to state enforced servitude making women into disenfranchised walking wombs; and that this is the will of Christians.

“I was astonished to see The Handmaid’s Tale referenced several times in a recent House of Commons debate on abortion; how have we reached a point where fiction is used as a political argument?”

Margaret Atwood is of course entitled to write what she wishes. What is of grave concern, though, is that some non-Christians consider this a credible and informative illustration.

Since then, of course, the book has been brought to small screens worldwide, in a drama series that’s won awards. I was astonished to see it referenced several times in a recent House of Commons debate on abortion; how have we reached a point where fiction is used as a political argument?

In the first episode of the series, the protagonist is raped by her master whilst he reads from Genesis about Jacob’s impregnation of Bilhah. In a culture where the Bible is almost absent, scenes like this have dangerous impact. Yet reproductive “rights” have been inseparable from Christianity in the public mindset since long before The Handmaid’s Tale. Few of the many comments that I make regarding abortion on Facebook go without replies attacking “religion” — even though my comments never mention religion at all.

Legitimate argument?

Debate in Parliament is, of course, not meant to be dry and stuffy. Ever since Parliament has sat to debate in the early thirteenth century, it has been a scene of lively and sometimes violent encounters. The link here lists the fist-fights that have broken out in the House of Commons since 1902; and during the unrest leading up to the English Civil War, King Charles I famously charged into the House of Commons accompanied by four hundred armed men.

“It is one thing (and quite legitimate and often memorable) to illustrate one’s point on the basis of popular fiction. However — and especially when one is debating an issue so serious and so emotive as abortion — it is not a good procedure to argue one’s point on that basis. The debate over abortion in the UK is too important to be conducted on so sandy a foundation.”

It is one thing — and quite legitimate and often memorable — to illustrate one’s point on the basis of popular fiction. However — and especially when one is debating an issue so serious and so emotive as abortion — it is not a good procedure to argue one’s point on that basis.

The debate over abortion in the UK — or Northern Ireland, or over the Irish Sea — is too important to be conducted on so sandy a foundation. Any change to existing law needs to be based on solid medical science, philosophy (what value do we place on human life and when does life begin?) and law (yes, law is self-referential; laws inform new laws) — rather than on the basis of emotive arguments: much less on the basis of what our local elected member watched on TV last night.

As an example of law informing law, consider the recent calls for the UK Parliament to impose the rest of the UK’s abortion law on Northern Ireland whilst the Stormont Assembly is in abeyance.

But within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, that matter is constitutionally for the Stormont Assembly to decide — not the UK Parliament. If the Stormont Assembly is absent owing to their failure to put together a group of members who could agree to work together — that is no basis for Westminster to step in and amend the law by decree; on such an important issue, the status quo must hold. Theresa May was entirely right to resist these calls.

“A referendum would help inform the political parties who take over the administration when that happens. It is preferable to have anything done in this area reflecting the will of the people of Northern Ireland, not imposed from Westminster.”
Maria Miller MP (Conservative), Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee[1]

So the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is a matter for the Stormont Assembly to decide on — on the basis of science, philosophy and law.

Is abortion a ‘Christian’ problem?

One of the recurrent features of contemporary debate over women’s rights, especially the right to abortion, is that it is always treated as a religious vs. non-religious issue. In fact, a Christian vs. non-religious issue — even though the normative Jewish and Islamic views on abortion coincide with the Christian. Witness, for example, the recent bear-baiting of Jacob Rees-Mogg (a practising Roman Catholic) on the BBC’s Daily Politics.

“It seems to be assumed that the ‘Christian’ position on abortion is the position which wants to beat down the fundamental rights of women, whilst all ‘sane’ individuals (that is, those who don’t believe the Bible) understand and affirm the rights of women. The truth is, abortion is not fundamentally a religious issue at all.”

It seems to be assumed that the ‘Christian’ position on abortion is the position which wants to beat down the fundamental rights of women, whilst all ‘sane’ individuals (that is, those who don’t believe the Bible) understand and affirm the rights of women.

The truth is, abortion is not fundamentally a religious issue at all. It is a question over what we believe about human life and when that life begins — a scientific/philosophical question.

It is a religious issue only insofar as the three great Western religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — adopt a particular view on the value of human life (note the philosophical question), which then necessarily informs those religions’ views on abortion. This is an important distinction which is almost universally missed, not least in the popular media.[2]

Take an example of how this works. Christianity only burst onto the scene of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, and Judaism (which has the same philosophical framework for understanding the value of human life) only seriously began to influence Graeco-Roman thought from the second century BC onwards with increasing Roman interaction with the Jewish people, and eventual conquering of the Jewish people in 63 BC.

“It is thanks to the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the intrinsic value of human life, that we have, for example, no more (legal) slavery practised throughout the Commonwealth or in the US. It was committed, evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce who fought the campaign which eventually led to the abolition of slavery throughout the Commonwealth.”

Prior to this — and for several centuries after, whilst the Judeo-Christian view of humanity took root — Greeks and Romans placed little intrinsic value on human life. If you were a citizen, you were valuable; if you were a slave, you could be killed off without recrimination for very little reason. Hence, in the Graeco-Roman way of thinking, one’s value was based on whether or not one was a citizen, not whether or not one was a human.

Thus the famous Greek philosopher Plato (c. 429—347 BC[3]) argues that socially undesirable offsprings should be exposed at birth.[4]

It was the philosophical worldview of Judaism/Christianity which caused all this to change within the Roman Empire from the fourth century AD onwards.[5]

It is thanks to the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the intrinsic value of human life, that we have, for example, no more (legal) slavery practised throughout the Commonwealth or in the US. It was committed, evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce who fought the campaign which eventually led to the abolition of slavery throughout the Commonwealth.

Today, however, Christianity is widely viewed — and derided — as being the epitome of the very opposite of basic human rights.

And yet without Christianity, many of those who now deride it as an anti-women, anti-human-rights, arcane relic of the past, either would never have been born, or would have been born in slavery and without the right even to an opinion.

 

 

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/04/theresa-may-resists-tory-calls-to-act-on-northern-ireland-abortion

[2] See, e.g., here.

[3] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/

[4] http://internetbiblecollege.net/Lessons/Greek%20Roman%20&%20Jewish%20attitudes%20to%20abortion.pdf

[5] https://earlychurchhistory.org/medicine/ancient-roman-abortions-christians/

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