Reproductive rights advocates demonstrate against the dystopia they fear Missouri is becoming

“Don’t let Missouri become Gilead”

Women march up the steps of the Missouri capitol dressed as Margaret Atwood’s handmaids. CREDIT: Screenshot, @PPGreatPlains Twitter.
Women march up the steps of the Missouri capitol dressed as Margaret Atwood’s handmaids. CREDIT: Screenshot, @PPGreatPlains Twitter.

Eleven women in Missouri marched silently into their state capitol dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaids Tale on Wednesday to protest their lawmakers’ latest attempt to restrict their rights.

The protest mirrored an earlier action in Texas, in which women dressed as handmaids to protest their own state’s attempts to chip away at residents’ constitutionally-protected abortion rights.

“Folks saw the protest in Texas and said, oh my gosh, that is a perfect analogy for what is happening in Missouri right now,” Sarah Felts, the communications coordinator for Planned Parenthood Missouri told ThinkProgress over the phone.

In Atwood’s story, women are stripped of their rights by an authoritarian, ideologically Christian regime. If they’re fertile, they’re assigned to powerful men as handmaids. In Gilead, as her dystopian United States is renamed, women’s reproductive processes are obsessively controlled by the men in power.

When Atwood spoke to the BBC in October 2016, she was asked if her story — published more than 30 years ago — was alarmist, or if she had been “too worried” about the future of reproductive rights. She responded that actually, it probably didn’t go far enough.

“If you look state by state, some of the laws they’re putting in right now, I probably wasn’t worried enough. The Handmaids Tale has become a meme in U.S. politics,” she said. “You may not get the costumes and such… But everything else, yeah.”

Now activists, too, have noticed the parallels — and they’re using the book’s costumes as a way to drive their point home.

On Wednesday women marched around the capitol building with signs reading “Don’t let Missouri become Gilead” and “Gilead took credit cards, #MOleg is taking Medicaid cards” before sitting in the gallery to observe the session — where they were forced to remove their handmaid’s tale-style bonnets.

While the local affiliates of Planned Parenthood and NARAL helped coordinate the protest — in part because they were already conveniently located in St. Louis — Felts said that the protest itself was a grassroots reaction to the litany of regressive laws Missouri’s legislators have considered this session.

“These are folks that wanted to do this. We’ve got folks coming from all across the state,” she told ThinkProgress before the protest on Tuesday.

Since January alone, lawmakers in Missouri have introduced around 40 bills that, in various ways, would negatively impact Missourian’s access to sexual and reproductive health care. Some of these bills have stalled, while others are still making their way through the legislature.

Against this backdrop, the Missouri handmaids are heading to the capitol to protest one draconian measure in particular: a budget amendment barring the Missouri Women’s State Funded Health Services Program from covering care at any clinic that offers abortion services.

It’s an escalation of a similar bill passed last year, which prohibited such funding from going to organizations that actually provide abortion care. That amendment that cost Missouri $8.3 million in federal funds.

This time, the amendment would cut off funding to any clinic that even refers patients to abortion — in effect, preventing pregnant Missourians from going to any clinic that actually informed them of their full range of choices.

“It defines abortion services really broadly. Not only providing abortion care, but just talking about it,” Felts said. “There’s no clear definition of referring. It could just be talking about abortion as an option.”

Rep. Robert Ross (R), who sponsored the amendment, claimed during debate that the measure would prevent taxpayer money from supporting abortion.

It’s already illegal, however, for any taxpayer funds to cover abortion care itself. Instead, what the amendment would do is restrict women’s access to care. According to Felts, if the measure passes, there are more than 100 health care providers across the state of Missouri that low-income women would no longer be permitted to go to.

“When you start eliminating providers and restricting who can say what, at the end of the day you’re going to restrict access,” Michelle Trupiano, executive director of the Missouri Family Health Council, told St. Louis Public Radio, adding that the amendment “could actually decimate the entire family planning network.”

The Missouri legislature must vote on the budget bill — and the amendment — by 6 p.m. on Friday.

Missouri lawmakers have a long history of pushing forth regressive abortion restrictions. The siege has only intensified since November 2016, however, as lawmakers were both emboldened by Trump and by the election of Republican Governor Eric Greitens, which gave the GOP control over all three branches of Missouri’s government.

Missouri activists, however, also have a long record of creative protests pushing back on their lawmakers’ restrictions.

In 2014, advocates staged a 72-hour filibuster on the capitol steps to protest a proposed 3-day waiting period for women seeking abortions. While defending the proposal, anti-choice Missouri lawmakers repeatedly compared women’s reproductive health resources to cars. Women responded by showing up with “I am not a car” signs. Some even dressed as cars to drive the point home.

Despite the protest — and an extensive body of research showing that women seeking abortions do not change their minds, and such waiting periods in fact just place greater financial burdens and stress on those seeking abortion care — the 2014 measure passed. And since then, lawmakers in Missouri have offered a litany of bills that would further restrict women’s rights.