'Handmaid' activists protest anti-abortion bills in Texas

Activists dressed in red cloaks protest silently in Texas's state Capitol. Photo: @SophieNovack on Twitter.
Activists dressed in red cloaks protest silently in Texas's state Capitol. Photo: @SophieNovack on Twitter.

A neat row of women dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets filed silently into the Texas State Legislature building on Tuesday, May 9 around lunchtime, adding a striking visual statement to their protest against anti-abortion bills.

The bright red cloaks were a nod to the 1985 novel "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood. The book is set in a dystopian world where fertility has plummeted, women have lost reproductive rights, and fertile women — the red-cloaked ‘Handmaids’ — are subject to institutionalised rape in order to repopulate society. Sales of the novel (along with other bleak, dystopian novels like George Orwell’s ‘1984’) surged after Donald Trump’s election as president and a new television adaptation on Hulu has brought it back into the public eye.

This week was a busy week for anti-abortion legislation in Texas’s Capitol, with five bills up for debate. One bill proposes the obligatory cremation or burial of embryonic or foetal tissue after an abortion, while another would restrict abortion clinics from receiving state funding.

The twenty activists in costume gathered in a circle in the capitol’s rotunda, each holding a sign that referenced a different piece of anti-abortion legislation passed in the state since the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade legalised abortion across the nation in 1973. Three other activists stood in the middle of the rotunda reading out women’s abortion stories and experiences.

Photo: Julie Yost on Twitter

"We want to make lawmakers a little nervous"

Julie Yost was one of the volunteers who took part in the action as a Handmaid. She told FRANCE 24 what it was like to be in the centre of the action.

It was totally different to a normal protest. It was more of an action than a protest. It felt different in that it was performative. The idea wasn’t that we were strength in numbers: the strength was the story we were trying to tell. That was the impact.

The Handmaids did not say anything. We were told to look down, look at the floor, and stand still. It was really powerful. A lot of people cried hearing the stories [that were being read out].

The last story we told was written by a woman who really wanted her child from a first pregnancy with her husband and found out the child had a terminal condition. The hospital they had health insurance with was a religious hospital and so they refused to dilate her and remove the foetus until there was a heartbeat, so she had to carry this baby knowing that she was just waiting for it to die. Our reader cried, and I cried too. Now [the Texas legislature has] passed a 20-week ban [a ban on abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation] and that 20-week mark is normally the time when you find out if there are foetal abnormalities. So now any woman who finds herself in that position has to go to New Mexico or carry their child to term.

Lawmakers are going to be up for election next year, and this action was to show them that we are there, that we’re watching, that we see what they’re doing. My hope is that this makes these lawmakers a little nervous.

With Trump in office and the Supreme Court becoming more conservative, I’m really concerned that abortion is going to become illegal in the US again, or at least become a decision for the states. So I want to do everything I can in my own state for reproductive rights, and to make sure that we’re heard.

Photo: Twitter.

Anti-abortion laws in Texas drew attention in 2013, when then-Texas state senator Wendy Davis filibustered against anti-abortion bill SB5. Davis spoke for 11 hours straight in an attempt to prevent the bill being passed before the end of the session. The bill was successfully blocked in that session – but was later signed into law (under the name HB2) by Governor Rick Perry, in July 2013. As a result of the law, more than half of all of the abortion clinics in Texas were forced to close. The law has since been struck down in the Supreme Court, but the vast majority of closed services haven’t been restored.

"Women’s rights are being eroded in the US right now"

Heather Busby is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. It was Busby who came up with the idea for the costumed protest after seeing people dressed as Handmaids in Austin to promote the TV series.

The Handmaids were creeping everyone out. And I saw that and joked that maybe we should send them to the Capitol. And then a conversation started up about it – what if we actually did this? We started to plan it. Initially we rented the capes and purchased bonnets online. Then we created patterns, got fabric, and hosted sewing parties. Now we have 20 capes sewn by volunteers.

It’s very visually striking, it gets attention. Every time we’ve done it gets a whole lot of buzz. "The Handmaid’s Tale" feels extreme, but given all of the restrictions on reproductive freedom, especially in Texas, it is becoming more and more a possible reality. Women’s rights are being eroded in the US right now — but this preceded Trump.

We’ve had 30 bills this year that would regulate or restrict abortion in some way. The state is taking away our ability to control our reproduction.

Texas lawmakers are trying to push bills through before time runs out in the current legislative session, which ends on May 29.