At the stroke of noon on Thursday, more than a dozen activists crowded the James R. Thompson Center donned in red cloaks and white bonnets. The activists were unified by their “Handmaid’s Tale” -inspired costumes, as well as in their mission to convince Gov. Bruce Rauner to pass House Bill 40 and protect reproductive health care.
HB 40 vows to protect abortion rights in Illinois, even if Roe v. Wade – the 1973 case that made abortion a right in the United States – is drastically weakened or overturned. The bill also prevents insurers from denying abortion coverage to Medicaid recipients and state employees through the Illinois health insurance plan.
HB 40 passed in the Illinois House of Representatives (62-55) in April and the Illinois Senate (33-22) in May, and now it is up to Rauner to sign the bill into law. Contrary to his 2014 campaign promises, which expressed tremendous support for abortion rights, Rauner is planning to veto bill HB 40.
“I fundamentally believe that abortion should be a woman’s private decision, and that this decision should not be impeded by the government,” wrote Rauner in a 2014 Personal PAC questionnaire. “I dislike the Illinois law that restricts abortion coverage under the state Medicaid plan and state employees’ health insurance, because I believe it unfairly restricts access based on income. I will support a legislative effort to reverse that law.”
This change in heart seems to come from the clause in HB 40 that makes taxpayer-funded abortions more available. If the bill was just about protecting abortion in Illinois from the potential destruction of Roe v. Wade, Rauner said he would “sign that legislation if that bill came to his desk.” But by allowing abortion to be funded by Illinois taxpayers, Rauner claimed the proposal is “very divisive… very controversial.”
The Handmaids circled the Thompson Center twice before making their statement to Gov. Rauner. Jessica Droger stepped to the center of the circle of activists with a small paper sign in hand. It read “nolite bastardes carborundorum,” a Latin quote from “The Handmaid’s Tale” that translates to: “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
“Because HB 40 would require Medicaid and the state employee’s health insurance plans to provide coverage of abortion services, you will not sign it,” Droger said at the height of the demonstration. “You are threatening to break a specific and clear promise you made to us and we will not let it go.”
As he is preparing for re-election in 2018, passing a controversial bill like HB 40 could hurt his campaign among Republican voters.
Because of Rauner’s change in heart, Illinois activists took to the Thompson Center, or JRTC – a historical landmark and home to a handful of state government offices, including the governor’s Chicago district office. The activists dressed in red robes and white bonnets in homage to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood turned Hulu Original Series in April 2017.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” follows a post-America totalitarian society where women are treated as government property and are used to repopulate the dying state if fertile. While written in 1985, the themes in the book, especially after being adapted for Hulu, ring terrifyingly real.
“Part of being human and an American is our free will,” Droger said. “We are all encouraged to make our own decisions about our lives. But right now, our government is treating women’s bodies as though when we get pregnant, we lose our individual rights. Our pregnancy ends up having more rights that we do. We all deserve to make our own decisions about our bodies and our lives…. We don’t lose our human or constitutional rights when we become pregnant.”
The novel’s return to pop culture has sparked several “Handmaid’s Tale” -esque protests all over the country. Recently, the group Refuse Fascism – which was featured at the Thompson demonstration – wore Handmaid dress and protested Vice President Mike Pence after a speaking engagement with the conservative group Focus on the Family in Colorado. The Christian conservative organization, started by psychologist James Dobson, opposes gay marriage, abortion, premarital sex and promotes abstinence-only sex education and creationism.
Illinois organizations like ACLU of Illinois, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Indivisible Chicago and Men4Choice showed their solidarity with the Thompson Center demonstrators in-person and online. Twitter blew up with photos and videos from the demonstration with the hashtags #Handmaids4HB40 and #SignHB40. Activists encouraged those who could not take part to become a “virtual handmaid” and contact Rauner’s office to urge him to sign HB 40.
As the public protest evolves, especially when it comes to reproductive rights, it’s fascinating to see what figure is deemed as the “symbol” for the movement at that time. For most of the Civil Rights Movement, witches were seen as a radical political symbol and often used to protest for equal pay, abortion rights and other feminist movements. Now it’s clear that the Handmaids, those who don a bright red cape and a white cone-shaped bonnet, are the reinvented faces of abortion activism.
“Uphold your promises, Governor Rauner. Stand on the right side of history,” Droger said.