Dignity & Democracy
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    Where fiction meets reality – the dignity of women: The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, by Rachael Wyborn

    Posted by ccld201

    6 November 2023

    Set in a dystopian near-future, where environmental disaster causes escalating infertility in society, the few remaining fertile women are forcibly assigned to produce children for the ruling class of “Commanders”. With themes such as women’s powerlessness in a totalitarian patriarchy, loss of female agency and individuality, the suppression of women’s reproductive rights and their instrumentalisation for State-led objectives, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) exposes a world where women are stripped of their humanity and dignity.  For the same reason Atwood’s novel is a good starting point for awareness of dignity-related issues, it is also a harsh reminder of the current threats and backslidings.[1]

    In her novel, Margaret Atwood tells the story of Handmaids in Gilead: a world where women are prisoners of the State, their reproductive freedom is stolen, and their fundamental human rights are curtailed. Everything down to their name has been appropriated: for instance, June now goes by the name “Offred” to identify her as the Handmaid appointed to bear children for Commander Fred. The Handmaids are women who are subjected to state-sanctioned and ritualised rape every month, their existence reduced to a mere vessel of reproduction. Ultimately, the value of women in Gilead is purely functional, their reproductive rights have been confiscated, they are prohibited from reading, writing, and engaging with other Handmaids. They are powerless, objectified,[2] and their existence un-dignified.

    More unsettling still, The Handmaid’s Tale is more than a fictional tragedy; Margaret Atwood has stated that aspects of her novel ‘have their precedents in some of the darkest chapters in world history’. For instance, she notes that in Romania, the 1967 ‘Decree 770’ forbade abortion and contraception for women under 40 with fewer than 4 children. Another example that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale was Nazi Germany’s ‘Lebensborn’ eugenics program which aimed to increase the “Aryan” race by prohibiting abortion, instrumentalising women, and orchestrating pregnancies.

    Today, the principle of human dignity lies at the very core of human rights law. Foundational human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Additional Protocol 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights (2002) which categorically abolishes the death penalty at all times, recognise the dignity of human beings as the beating heart and underlying rationale of human rights. Whilst the precise meaning of dignity is contested, academics, legislators and judges across the world agree that dignity relates to the very essence of humanity: it is the core quality that makes us human.

    Particularly since the end of the Second World War,[3] legislators and judges have taken strides to protect the rights and dignity of women in the face of threats to their bodily safety, integrity, and autonomy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a milestone in the protection of human rights with its Preamble and Article 1 placing dignity at the heart of its aims and concerns, and introducing a universal system of protection for the first time in history. The UDHR proved particularly unprecedent and important for the dignity of women, whom, for the first time on such a wide scale, were finally being included and protected in legislation to the same extent as men.

    In the UK, another major development for the dignity of women occurred in 1991 with the case of R v R which finally recognised marital rape as a crime, reversing the assumption of consent in marriage.[4] When the same case was brought in front of the European Court of Human Rights in 1995 it was insisted that human freedom and human dignity are fundamental: dehumanising the wife by letting her husband go unpunished for rape was a violation of her dignity. More recently, in 2014, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention came into effect recognising women’s experiences of gender-based violence and aiming to prevent, protect, and prosecute violence against women that violates their human rights. Human dignity has been a key tool in the protection and advancement of the rights of women all around the world.

    In the US, Roe v Wade was a landmark case that set the foundations for the protection of abortion rights. [5]  However, the US Supreme court overturned this decision in 2022, leading to an increase in restrictive abortion laws across several US states.[6] These laws restrict the right to bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom of women, not unlike the Handmaids in Gilead. Around the world the dignity of women, particularly their reproductive rights and access to safe abortion, too often falls through the cracks of legislation, remaining fragile and consistently challenged.

    Through “Ofglen”’s story, a fellow handmaid, Margaret Atwood also touches on LGBTQI+ issues, particularly female genital mutilation, and the criminalisation of same-sex relationships. In the UK the position is clear: courts have declared discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation impermissible and contrary to human dignity.[7] In Hungary, the 9th amendment to the 2012 Fundamental Law, which came into force in December 2020, excludes transgender individuals from State protection and care, and promotes traditional family structures, undermining same-sex couples and using women as a mere meansin achieving a demographic government policy.[8]

    As such, The Handmaid’s Tale is both a cautionary tale and an unpleasant reflection: it exposes a world, with uncomfortable similarities to our own, where a lack of robust legal protection of human dignity, can lead to the systematic violation of the fundamental rights of women.

    Rachael Wyborn is a final-year LLB student at the University of Exeter.

    [1] The use of fiction to illustrate and reflect on legal concepts, principles and issues is a well-established academic field known as ‘Law and Literature’.

    [2] Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals [1797], edited by Mary Gregor (CUP, 2009), 209: Doctrine of Virtue states that ‘man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end’: human beings have inherent and absolute inner worth, our autonomy is paramount, and any objectification violates our dignity .

    [3] Jürgen Habermas, ‘Learning by Disaster?’ A Diagnostic Look back on the short 20th Century’ (1998) 5

    Constellations 307.

    [4] R v R [1991] UKHL 12.

    [5] Roe v Wade 410 US 113, 163-64 (1973).

    [6] See also, Emily Ottley, Karolina Szopa, Jamie Fletcher, ‘Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022): consequences one year on’ (2023) Medical Law Review 457.

    [7] para 132.

    [8] See also, The Ninth Amendment of the Fundamental Law of Hungary (23/12/2020) <https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-REF(2021)045-e>; Catherine Dupré, ‘Human Dignity: Rhetoric, Protection, and Instrumentalisation’ in Gábor Attila Tóth (ed), Constitution for a Disunited Nation: On Hungary’s 2011 Fundamental Law (Central European University Press, 2012) 156.


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