A Handmaid’s Tale – abortion laws in context

A Handmaid’s Tale – abortion laws in context

Reading Time: 2 minutes

With fertility and children being at the heart of A Handmaid’s Tale, this article from the BBC is excellent context.

It includes the image below, a timeline of pregnancy with information on when states allow abortions to occur, as well as a historical timeline of information – perfect for the OCR A-Level Literature exam.

Abortion timeline

For further context, the NHS states that abortions in England, Scotland and Wales can be carried out up to 24 weeks, with some after that in some circumstances e.g. the mother’s life being at risk or a child being born with a severe disability.

In Northern Ireland, the same law doesn’t apply:

“Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.” – Abortion law in NI lack of clarity ‘creating confusion’

Clearly, you don’t want to include a huge history lesson on abortion in the middle of the essay. However, it’s directly addressed by Atwood – the alt-right Christian group leading Gilead blame sexual promiscuity – a result in their view of freely available contraception and the availability of abortion – for the decline in fertility. It’s important NOT to conflate contraception and abortion – few women routinely have multiple abortions, and there’s little to no evidence suggesting women use it as such.

It’s also worth noting that since the TV series has repopularised the novel, protestors in favour of relaxing abortion laws have dressed as handmaids.


In the novel, Offred passes the bodies of doctors who carried out abortions, now hanging on the wall as a message to others. She also recalls protests in the time before campaigning for women to have access to abortion.

Incidentally, the cost of having a child in hospital in the USA is $32,000 – a staggering sum for those of us in the UK! The high cost of virtually unavoidable medical bills surely must contribute to people’s decisions over when to start a family.


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