When the world seems increasingly dystopian, sometimes the best way to grapple with reality is to turn to fiction. Novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable Series highlight the disturbing ways science fiction parallels, and sometimes predicts, our current reality.
Holding a coffee cup with the words “I told you so,” author Margaret Atwood posed for a picture posted to Instagram just 16 days after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision was overturned. The 5-4 Supreme Court decision led by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett ended nearly 50 years of federal abortion rights and reproductive health care of birthing people in the United States.
In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, those with viable ovaries, called Handmaids, are closely monitored and controlled by a patriarchal, religious-extremist government. Under the confinements of the law, the Handmaids are renamed after the male head-of-household to which they belong – “Offred”, “Ofglen”, and “Ofwarren”. Having lost their reproductive rights, the Handmaids are forced to give birth, often resulting in mental and physical health challenges.
In parallel to Atwood’s storyline, research has found that women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term faced significantly higher mental health and socioeconomic challenges compared to women who had an abortion. Dr. Diane Green Foster is the principal investigator of the Turnaway Study, a project started in 2008 that studied the longitudinal effects of unwanted pregnancy and abortion in 1,000 women over 10 years. In light of the Roe decision, public health scientists and doctors are concerned about the consequences forced birth will have on health and healthcare in states where abortion is banned. “When abortion is legal, it is safe,” said a statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in response to the Roe decision. They continued with “These oppressive laws will force many people to face the known risks associated with continuing a pregnancy, including potential pregnancy-related complications and worsening of existing health conditions, . . . There is no room within the sanctuary of the patient–physician relationship for individual lawmakers who wish to impose their personal religious or ideological views on others.”
In her novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), Octavia Butler wrote about a (not-so) futuristic society plagued by global warming and economic strife set in the United States in 2024. Her protagonist lives through the rise of a Christian fundamentalist denomination led by Andrew Steele Jarrett, a presidential candidate running under the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Throughout her series, Butler explored themes she saw in her everyday news including white supremacy, capitalism, and gun violence. In describing her work, Butler said “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.”
“There’s a precedent in real life for everything in the book,” Atwood said in a 2017 interview, “But you write these books so they won’t come true.” However, the work of both Atwood and Butler show how quickly fiction can become reality. Science fiction offers a lens through which to imagine an alternate reality – and a cautionary tale about what is possible in the future.
Read the UNC Science Writing and Communication Club’s statement on the Roe v. Wade decision here.
Peer Editors: Catalina Cobos-Uribe and Maria Cardenas