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  • Eleonora Voltolina

“The womb is mine”, surrogacy and the question of free choice in The Handmaid’s Tale

Among the many excellent features of The Handmaid’s Tale, an outstanding TV series inspired by

Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name, is the growth of the characters and their backgrounds, which goes far beyond the book. The story of Moira, the central character June’s best friend, is especially significant when considering the themes of body self-determination and motherhood.

On the surface, The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be a rallying cry against surrogacy, or “womb for rent” as its detractors refer to it: the handmaids, after all, are women deprived of personal freedom, taken in by infertile couples, and forced during their fertility period to undergo sexual intercourse with the house masters, de facto rapes – meticulously choreographed, and with the infertile wife present.

Once pregnant, the handmaid lives with the family until she gives birth, another ‘public’ event marked by rites involving both other handmaids and wives. After childbirth, the child is officially assigned to the Commander’s family; the handmaid is removed and assigned to another family, with the expectation that she will be able to produce other children for other Commanders; she is not expected to have any further contact with the child she has given birth to. . A dreadful scenario, one that tramples on these women and pits them against each other (handmaids versus wives), one that denies the reality of an emotional tie between pregnant women and the children they carry, as well as the concept of maternal instinct and attachment.

This stance is similar to some of the ‘baby factories’ that exist today, particularly in the developing world, in the business of surrogacy, employing impoverished women who make their bodies available in exchange for remuneration that is highly appealing in their own countries. There are tight rules in place here as well, which require the children to be removed as soon as they are born.

So far, everything appears to be straightforward, with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. In reality, it is not quite so simple: there are economically and legally advanced countries, such as Canada and the United States, where surrogacy is perfectly legal and is set out in a precise regulatory framework that seeks to protect all those involved, beginning with the child-bearing women, to ensure that there is no exploitation. Neither is it so straightforward in the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, which chooses in the second season to give the character of Moira, played by Samira Wiley, a past that allows the topic of surrogacy to be examined in all its complexities. Moira, it turns out in the seventh episode of season two, had a baby in the United States through a surrogacy arrangement prior to the Gilead takeover. She underwent the insemination process completely legally, carried the pregnancy, gave birth, and then released the baby into the hands of the sterile couple who had hired her for the purpose.

Moira freely chose to participate in this surrogacy. She was paid for this service, but she was financially stable and had a good education, so she wasn’t doing it out of need or ignorance. She has no regrets about that baby, which she never thought was hers, but which she carried for nine months without pressure or violence. She has no guilt about what she did, she does not regret the loss of her child, and she was content with her decision at every step of the journey, including the moment of separation.

It’s worth noting that the series’ main character, June, Moira’s best friend, does not entirely agree with Moira’s decision. She communicates her point of view without daring to criticise Moira, recognising that individual choice is the highest value and that each woman – each person – must be entitled to make her own decisions about what to do or not do with her body.

Moira’s prior voluntary experience of surrogacy highlights the violent situation in which she finds herself when, once imprisoned in Gilead, she is made into a handmaid, and this surrogacy (which, unlike in June’s, is not actualised) loses all contours of consent and free choice. This allows the audience to consider the various aspects of the subject and the profound difference that can exist between a woman deprived of her liberty and/or living in economically or psychologically disadvantaged conditions and a woman who is free and conscious in dealing with an apparently similar situation.


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