Forget “Handmaid’s Tale” — ”Red Clocks” is the Reproductive Dystopia We Need to Read Right Now

Leni Zumas’s novel envisions a future that’s almost here, and asks what we’re doing to stop it

In the unsettlingly near future, Roe v. Wade has been overturned and a federal Personhood Amendment ratified, giving “the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception.” At first, things go like they always do in countries where abortion is criminalized: pregnant people with money travel to have the procedure performed where it’s legal. But here, young women attempting to travel outside the country are scrutinized for any hint of an unwanted early pregnancy, and middle-aged women for signs of a desperation to conceive. The Canadian border patrol sends suspected abortion- and IVF-seekers back home, a practice known as “The Pink Wall.” (In vitro fertilization is criminalized under this law because, fully vested with the rights and privileges pertaining to human persons, “the embryos can’t consent to be moved.”) As the reality of fetal personhood sinks in, legal rulings in a similar vein follow, such as the “Every Child Needs Two” act that prohibits single people from adopting.

This is the world of Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, the most recent book in the genre I think of as “reproductive dystopia” — and the one we most need to heed. In older reproductive dystopias — Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from 1985, P.D. James’ Children of Men from 1992, and even Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke from 2011 — apocalyptically low birth rate is the anxiety driving the narrative; shit first hits the fan because the number of new babies being born has dropped substantially. In Louise Erdrich’s 2017 reproductive dystopia, Future Home of the Living God, it’s because the number of new fully human babies plummets, as life on planet earth has begun a process of de-evolution. In any case, there is a high-stakes, cataclysmic reason to explain why authoritarian, theocratic governments take charge of human reproduction, and why by and large, the people let them. But in Red Clocks, the reason is simply that the antichoice movement has finally achieved what it set out to do, what it is working to accomplish as I write this and will be working to accomplish when you read it. Everyone with a uterus loses the right to decide alone what happens inside it, not because the world is dying, but because Americans put a few more Mike Pence types in charge than we already have.

Zumas’s four primary characters are living in an Oregon only two years out from the ratification of the Personhood Amendment. “The Biographer” is a single woman over forty who fervently wants a baby. “The Daughter” is a pregnant teenager who desperately wants an abortion, but is already surrounded by cautionary tales: a peer who threw herself down a flight of stairs; a lost best friend, Yasmine, “the self-scraper”; another classmate’s “sister’s friend, who got an abortion from the witch last year.” Said witch, “The Mender,” provides midwifery, herbal abortifacients, and routine gynecological check-ups to women too poor, frightened, ashamed, or frustrated to see western doctors. And finally, “The Wife” left law school to become a mother and now daydreams of driving her minivan off a cliff.

Everyone with a uterus loses the right to decide alone what happens inside it, not because the world is dying, but because Americans put a few more Mike Pence types in charge.

It being a small town, these four women occasionally interact in a round robin of envy and longing. The Biographer is gutted when The Wife makes it clear she thinks parenthood is a necessary condition of true adulthood. The Wife fears the seemingly carefree Biographer is having an affair with her husband. The Mender pines for a baby she gave up as a teenager, while The Daughter is frantic to rid herself of the dividing cells that threaten to become a baby.

Alongside their stories, we hear from the (fictional) polar explorer Eivør Minervudottir, subject of The Biographer’s biography, married against her will at 19, widowed 18 months later, and cast out by her mother for failing to produce a child in that time.

Zumas covers the terror, the honor, the pain, the possibility, and the oppression that come with having a uterus more thoroughly than most of these books attempt to — which is not to say she’s scratched the surface of all the reasons why a person would want to have a child or not at any given time. All of her main characters are white, all are cisgender, and all except The Mender are solidly middle-class at least. There are nods at the way that reproductive injustice disproportionately affects people of color; secondary characters, like Yasmine the self-scraper, are treated in ways that highlight racial disparities. But the fact is, it’s a flaw in an otherwise thoughtfully constructed narrative. It’s one thing to follow a single white character so closely that the racialized impact of such laws can only be observed second-hand — as Hillary Jordan does more successfully in When She Woke — but it’s quite another to follow multiple characters with the implicit goal of representing how personal experience complicates attitudes toward motherhood, and make every voice a white one.

Having said that, Zumas’s multi-narrator approach still evinces a broader, more inclusive vision of reproductive justice than the other titles in this narrow genre. Rather than focusing tightly on a woman who wants the right to have a baby (Children of Men, Future Home of the Living God), an abortion (When She Woke), or the choice whether to become pregnant and by whom (The Handmaid’s Tale), Red Clocks keeps driving home a single point from multiple angles: if control of a uterus’s activity belongs to anyone other than the person who contains that uterus, that person is denied true liberty. A pregnant teenager, a reluctant mother, a fortysomething who wants to try in vitro, a single woman who wants to raise a baby, a polar explorer who has no interest in children — all are in precisely the same position, if a theocratic government and/or repressive society declare that women can’t be trusted to govern their own bodies. And that position, to paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, is prone.

If control of a uterus’s activity belongs to anyone other than the person who contains that uterus, that person is denied true liberty.

Those of us who are inclined to read reproductive dystopias like to imagine we know what we would do in a Handmaid’s Tale-type scenario. In a future of sexual slavery and ritualized rape under a fundamentalist Christian government, we would fight back. We would go underground and organize. We would be the resistance. But when does the resistance start? What form does it take when most of us still believe that we’re essentially free, even if we know intellectually that a shady government is chipping away at our rights every day? What if we’re already living in a reproductive dystopia, but still — as the women in Red Clocks do, as Atwood’s Offred does before she is captured — reading the newspaper, tending our gardens, going to marches, raising our families?

Spoiler: We are.

Reproductive justice nonprofit Rewire’s Legislative Tracker is a handy tool for grasping the scope of the issue. A simple glance at the “topics” tab, and the number of current laws related to each, underscores the dizzying number of fronts on which a highly organized anti-choice movement is chipping away at women’s freedom. 20-week bans: 136. Conscience and refusal clauses: 245. Fetal homicide: 99. Forced ultrasound: 108. Funding restrictions for family planning: 182. Heartbeat bans: 52. Human embryo and fetal research restrictions: 138. Abstinence-only sex ed: 54. Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP laws): 263. Waiting periods and forced counseling: 84.

Personhood: 151.

Granted, some of the 151 proposed personhood laws, such as the federal Sanctity of Human Life Act (H.R. 586 in 2017), are introduced every year to expected failure. But just as Donald Trump couldn’t possibly have become president until he did, these bills will only fail until they don’t. This year, Alabama voters will decide whether to amend their state’s constitution “to declare and otherwise affirm that it is the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.” Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that future federal family planning grants will prioritize groups that push abstinence. The Associated Press notes that “The new HHS document makes repeated favorable mention of ‘natural family planning,’” i.e., the rhythm method.

When does the resistance start? What form does it take when most of us still believe that we’re essentially free, even if we know intellectually that a shady government is chipping away at our rights every day?

“This was always where Republicans were going to go: away from BIRTH CONTROL,” author Rebecca Traister wrote on Twitter in response to that news. “Not abortion. It’s not about ‘life.’ It’s about returning women to socially & economically subjugated positions, stripping them of the repro autonomy that permits full participation in public spheres.”

“This has always been the goal, the point,” she added a moment later. “The whole fucking point.”

“She was just quietly teaching history when it happened,” Zumas writes of The Biographer. “Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter.”

In interviews, Zumas says she began writing Red Clocks in 2010, as President Obama was just coming into his own, but the “personhood movement” was already well underway. If you were paying attention, it wasn’t hard to imagine waking up to something like a President Pence.

That’s exactly what made it — what still makes it — so tempting not to pay attention.

The Biographer in Red Clocks says she did what she could — marching and signing petitions — to stop the Personhood Amendment, to no avail. But The Wife, busy as she’s been with her children and husband’s everyday needs, realizes her apathy is one more manifestation of a self lost to an external ideal of family life. “[T]he person she planned to be would care about this mess, would bother to be furious,” Zumas tells us. The person The Wife has become, however, is “too tired to be furious.”

Aren’t we all, at this point? And yet, in the days after the 2016 presidential election, not so very long ago, my social media feeds lit up with links to an article by Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.”

Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.

As I write this, the big news of the day is that, while praising Chinese President Xi Jinping, Donald Trump said, “He’s now president for life. President for life. And he’s great. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.”

Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.

Survival rule #1: “Believe the autocrat.” You want to believe he can’t really mean that, because how could he? And then, time and again, he shows you that he means exactly what he says. And by that point, it’s too late to stop him.

The challenge of Red Clocks is to anticipate the coming horrors, instead of fantasizing about how to fight back once they’ve happened.

The challenge of Red Clocks — as opposed to The Handmaid’s Tale or Future Home of the Living God or really most dystopian novels — is to anticipate the coming horrors, instead of fantasizing about how to fight back once they’ve happened. It’s one thing to imagine yourself as a hero of the resistance, bundling pregnant women into unmarked vans under cover of night, lying to border guards, using code names, steeling yourself to kill or be killed if necessary. It’s quite another to imagine what you would do if things got just a little bit worse than they are now, with the promise of more to come. Red Clocks asks not “What would you do?” but “What are you doing?

We’ll all have different answers to that question, according to our abilities and priorities, but the very least we can do is be furious. Be outraged. Stay that way.

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