The New Handmaids
The future of reproductive rights, as seen in three young adult novels.
Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.
Welcome to the future, when condoms are illegal, orphaned teens are forced to bear children, and 16 is the mandated age to get knocked up. Is this what America will look like 25 years from now? In several recent post-apocalyptic young adult novels, young women aren’t battling to the death in a televised game or hiding from Big Brother. They’re fighting for control of their wombs.
Megan McCafferty’s Thumped is the second book in a satirical series, set in 2036 Princeton, N.J., about twin sisters with very different opinions of the patriotic obligation to “pregg.” Anna Carey’s Eve and Dan Wells’ Partials, meanwhile, have darker takes on the subject. All three stories portray a future of state-mandated pregnancies that seems all too plausible in a time when states force women into unnecessary ultrasounds and new abortion laws redefine when life begins.
Thumped, the sequel to McCafferty’s Bumped, alternates between the first-person narratives of twins Melody and Harmony. For the past 16 years, Melody has been prepped to be a RePro, a reproductive professional who gets pregnant for pay, while Harmony was raised in an evangelical compound where women are expected to have children young and keep having them. Ever since an outbreak of Human Progressive Sterility Virus left most women older than 18 barren, America has been scrambling to replenish the population. This means, as Melody’s frenemy exclaims in Bumped, that “for the first time in history, teenage girls are the most important people on the planet”— and the country’s greatest assets.
Thumped offers refreshing commentary on celebrity culture in general and the preoccupation with Hollywood baby bumps specifically. The frenzy over Beyoncé’s pregnancy was a mere ripple compared with the tsunami that surrounds Melody and Harmony when they announce they’re both having twins on the same day—a day quickly dubbed “Double Double Due Date,” or D4. But regardless of their collective marketing juggernaut—the sisters even have their own pop song—they have very different reasons for their “fertilicious” states.
Behind the satire of Thumped is a canny lesson about the way language can redefine belief. “You’re so neggy,” a tween girl tells her mom. “I’m going to terminate with embarrassment.” Careful teenage readers in certain states might think, upon reading the book’s cutesy euphemisms for repugnant practices, of the obfuscated names of some recent reproductive bills: the “Right To Know and See Act,” the “Women’s Right-To-Know Act,” and, my favorite, the “Ultrasound Opportunity Act.” Ultrasounds are now an opportunity? As the kids say in the future, “For Darwin’s sake!”
The Orwellian language games are more dire in Eve, the first novel in Anna Carey’s projected trilogy. In New America, women are not just “Eggs” waiting for “Sperm,” as they are in McCafferty’s two titles; they are “sows.” A virus has nearly obliterated old America’s population. Eve is the valedictorian of her all-female school, where she’s been taught to fear men and led to believe that after graduation she can become an artist. However, her illusions begin to crumble when a rebellious classmate explains: “Ninety-eight percent of the population is dead, Eve. Gone. How do you think the world is going to continue? They don’t need artists. … They need children. The healthiest children they can find … or make.” After peeking into an imposing structure near her school compound and seeing her former classmates strapped to beds, hugely pregnant, Eve runs away, with the King of New America’s troops in pursuit.
Carey evokes Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel directly by using a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale as her epigraph: “Maybe I really don’t want to know what’s going on. Maybe I’d rather not know. Maybe I couldn’t bear to know. The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.” Naïve Eve thinks society would value her as an artist; her tumble to knowledge is her realization that New America sees her as a walking womb and nothing more. Though Eve’s path from believer to apostate is too quick to be convincing, Eve ends with just enough hope to make us think the next installation (due in July) might take off.
In Dan Wells’ action-filled Partials, another trilogy opener, a virus is once again to blame for America’s destruction—well, a virus and the Partials, a race of engineered supersoldiers who turned on their human creators after the Isolation War with China. A small population of survivors has made Long Island into their stronghold, and it’s there that 16-year-old Kira investigates why babies with virus-immune parents all die within days of being born. The clock is ticking for Kira; all women must try to conceive by age 18 and keep having children as long as they possibly can, according to the Hope Act. (Why not the Pregnancy Opportunity Act?) After Kira undertakes a desperate journey into kudzu-covered, derelict Manhattan, hoping that the Partials can help her find a cure for the virus, the Hope Act age is lowered to 16.“We’re talking about the government taking full control over your body,” a friend tells Kira. ”What it’s for, what you do with it, and what other people can do to it.”
Other dystopian novels have explored these ideas before. In Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Medal winner The Giver, vocations are assigned to every citizen of a post-apocalyptic community. One possibility: “Birthmother,” “a job without honor” that requires a woman to have three children. And Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious precursor to all these books.
What distinguishes these newer novels is that they all demonstrate how draconian reproductive norms and restrictions aren’t created immediately; they happen gradually, one law at a time. In Thumped, Melody is a member of the “Pro/Am Pregg Alliance” before her take on what an activist friend calls “the whole teen pregnancy industrial complex” sours. In Eve, a teacher who helps Eve escape explains that she once believed that forced pregnancies would help New America rebuild. And in Partials, Kira argues for the Hope Act before she fights against it.
Teens have so little power over politics, laws, and even their hormones that the loss of reproductive freedom is a particularly terrifying addition to the list of things they cannot control. With 944 provisions related to reproductive health and rights introduced in 45 legislatures in January through March 2012 alone, any apprehension that adolescent women might have about their reproductive rights and the future would be justified.
It’s impossible to predict what kind of world young women reading these novels 10, 15, 25 years from now will inhabit. Best-case scenario? Teens will be both amused and appalled by the idea of a society in which women’s bodies are not their own. Worst case? They’ll be living in one.
Thumped by Megan McCafferty. Balzer & Bray.
Eve by Anna Carey. HarperCollins Children's Books.
Partials by Dan Wells. Balzer & Bray.
Chelsey Philpot is a book-reviews editor at School Library Journal. Her YA debut will be published by HarperCollins.