Handmaid’s Tale in the Real World? Bioethicist Proposes Using Bodies of Brain-Dead Women to Carry Pregnancies

“Handmaid’s Tale” is a post-apocalyptic tale of caution by novelist Margaret Atwood. It has gained traction in recent years after

Handmaid's Tale

“Handmaid’s Tale” is a post-apocalyptic tale of caution by novelist Margaret Atwood. It has gained traction in recent years after the release of a Hulu series by the same name.

But some of the themes in the series are almost too terrifying to consider for the modern woman, even as they’re happening already in places around the world. Atwood, after all, was writing about real situations women both have experienced and currently experience, sensationalizing them in a futuristic setting.

And some legislative policies bring the world steps closer to the kind of hyper-religious anti-woman world portrayed in the series.

One bioethicist wants to make something a reality that is perhaps even too horrible for the sadists in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to consider: using the bodies of brain-dead women to carry pregnancies for the infertile.


Handmaid’s Tale on Steroids: Using the Bodies of the Brain-dead to Carry Babies

Of all the possible scenarios for how humanity solves the issue of a falling birth rate and rising infertility, most of them involve encouraging or expecting living people with pregnancy-friendly uteruses to carry more babies.

Apparently though, there’s a resource humanity hasn’t considered (for good reason): those who are considered neurologically brain-dead.

LiveAction reports, “Anna Smajdor of the University of Olso wrote in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics that women who are brain dead shouldn’t have their wombs going to waste, when people who want children can use them. ‘We already know that pregnancies can be successfully carried to term in brain-dead women,’ she said. ‘There is no obvious medical reason why initiating such pregnancies would not be possible.’

But the ethics of such a decision seems to have overlooked by Smajdor.

‘I suggest that – all other things being equal – it should be an option for anyone who wishes to avoid the risks and burdens of gestating a foetus in their own body,’ she said, adding, ‘I suggest that brain stem dead men would also have the potential to gestate, meaning that the pool of potential donors is further increased – and that certain feminist concerns might thus be assuaged.’

The donor would have to give consent ahead of time, Smajdor said, but overall, she believes government policies should support it. ‘States and health services should adapt their policies and procedures to allow for WBGD among other donation options,’ she said. ‘If WBGD is viewed as a straightforward means of facilitating safer reproduction, and avoiding the moral problems of surrogacy, we should be ready to embrace it as a logical and beneficial extension of activities that we already treat as being morally unproblematic.’

Smajdor acknowledged the process is “straightforwardly the use of the body as a foetal container.'”

Aside from ethical concerns about the exploitative nature of post-consciousness surrogacy (and the very real risk that people would harm themselves into donorship to create a financial boon for their families if a financial transactional system were set up), the horror factor of using insensate bodies for essentially human breeding is immense.

The last century has been a slow and agonizing march away from the use of people with uteruses as simply brooders and incubators, in an attempt to secure an equitable society where they can self-determine and access all the rights of their uterus-free counterparts.

But an idea like this would immediately reverse the progress of looking at women as more than baby-makers, reducing them once again to the sum of their fertile parts.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Should We Worry?

While this idea is unlikely to gain mainstream traction for a number of moral and ethical reasons, there are certainly a number of other laws and policies either already in place or being worked on in the United States that would make a future like “The Handmaid’s Tale” much more likely.

For instance, when Roe v Wade was reversed in 2022, it marked the first time a right had been taken away from Americans since the establishment of the US Bill of Rights.

And it set a dangerous precedent.

Already, in conservative states across the country, women have essentially lost access to abortion and many life-saving procedures due to religious dogma working its way into politics and legislation.

In those states, rights for women, transgender and gay people and other vulnerable minorities are already eroding day by day from policies trumpeted by the likes of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

But it’s not just Republicans contributing to the slow backward slide for women; Democrats have had opportunities in the past to codify abortion rights on a federal level, but didn’t do so.

So the overturning of Roe v Wade revealed that no one in the federal government has any serious interest in protecting the rights of women and other vulnerable minorities, which has been a wake-up call for many; perhaps a needed one.

While it’s easy to sit in a position of relative comfort in the modern United States and say it seems unlikely that women will be forced into servitude for either their bodies, their uteruses, or their status – it’s not that implausible.

But the United States of the real world has one advantage that the former US in “Handmaid’s Tale” lacked: introspection.