This week, Sara Patenaude of the Handmaid Coalition of Georgia joins Gina for a discussion of reproductive rights in the state and beyond and what it means to stage a successful protest in the U.S. South.
The National Handmaid Coalition is a loosely organized group that formed after the 2016 election. Volunteers don white bonnets and red cloaks, a riff on Margaret Atwood’s novel (and award-winning Hulu television show) The Handmaid’s Tale, to bring attention to issues of reproductive health and justice. In Atwood’s dystopian future, some women have trouble having kids and an underclass of women is forced into surrogacy. “The symbol of a handmaid has really become deeply ingrained in this idea of people protesting against the walkback of abortion rights,” Sara says.
The Handmaid Coalition of Georgia formed in 2017 during a national 50 maids in 50 states protest where handmaids showed up at state capitols across the country in handmaid garb. Georgia’s chapter is one of the most active largely because of HB481, six-week abortion ban introduced this past legislative session. Each day of the session, handmaids showed up at the capitol and silently protested. Protests ranged from a couple to a couple dozen handmaids lining hallways, stairs and the capitol rotunda. Georgia’s governor signed HB481 into law, and if court challenges fail, the law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
“What it does is effectively stops women from being able to access abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, which is really just two weeks after your missed period,” Sara says. “It’s far too fast for most women to even know that they’re pregnant, especially too fast for women to access abortion if that’s what they need.”
HB481 is among several anti-abortion bills that made their way through state legislatures, including in Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah. “What they’re trying to do is to dismantle abortion rights in our entire country,” Sara says. The laws target and could potentially overturn monumental abortion rights precedents like Roe v. Wade and Parenthood v. Casey, making abortion access a state-level issue. “It maybe seems expected in the Southeast, but this is happening everywhere,” Gina notes.
Sara was drawn to the Handmaid Coalition for a variety of reasons. She holds degrees in English and history; she loves Atwood’s novel and its exploration of women’s bodily autonomy; she does advovacy work behind-the-scenes; and she’s among the one in four women who’ve had an abortion. When she heard about the protests, it just made sense for her to get involved. “The number one thing you can do to limit women is to limit their reproductive choices,” she says.
Sara says the Handmaids have gotten a wide range of reactions, including from lawmakers, but generally people are either very much for their cause or very much against it. One male lawmaker told them the women in The Handmaid’s Tale can’t have babbies because they’ve had too many abortions. The real reason? Male sterility. “Ugh,” Gina replies.
If you’d like to support the people fighting the rollbacks of women’s reproductive rights, please visit the following members of the Georgia Reproductive Health and Justice Coalition:
We’d like to thank Sara for joining us for this conversation. Her work also recently appeared in the Washington Post in response to Trump’s racist remarks about Baltimore and Representative Elijah Cummings.