Red Clocks by Leni Zumas imagines an America where abortion is illegal.
This is due to the introduction of the 28th (Personhood) amendment into the American constitution two years prior to when the story takes place, which gives “the consititutional right to life, liberty and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. (….) Abortion Providers can be charged with second degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder”
In vitro fertilization is also illegal because the embryo can’t give their consent to be moved and there is a “pink wall” where Canadian authorities arrest and return any women seeking abortion to face trial.
Set in a small town in Oregon, the book focuses in on the lives of four women and the chapters are divided by the life of an Arctic explorer in the 19th century, who struggles against sexism in her own life time and can’t get her research published because she is a woman.
Zumas has said in an interview that she drew inspiration a few years ago after coming across Mike Pence’s views on abortion and his want for women to pay for funerals for the unborn fetus. The word “dystopia” has been used in many descriptions and reviews of the book already, but Irish readers will see stark similarities between the reality of our own laws and the more harshly enforced laws in this novel. The world of this book is so well grounded in our own reality that it will undoubtedly resonate with any reader who is looking at abortion rights globally.
Each of the characters in their own chapter is named by what defines them; there is The Biographer, The Mender, The Daughter and The Wife.
Zumas asks the question “what does it mean to be a woman” expanding out of a focus on the limitation of reproductive rights, and encompasses the pressures faced by women in society, linking them to the sexism faced by the Arctic explorer who The Biographer writes about.
The Biographer, single, is constantly asked why she isn’t looking for a partner and is assumed to be lonely as she tries to become pregnant through insemination, while hoping that she will be selected as an adoptive parent before the new law, ruling that only married couples can adopt, comes into effect.
The Wife is unhappily married, never finished her law degree, resents the burden of the children she loves, and her post pregnancy body.
The Daughter is a 15 year old school student, and has a bright future until she finds herself pregnant. She is adopted and we meet her a year after her friend threw herself down a flight of stairs in a desperate attempt to end a pregnancy.
The Mender knows how to utilise natural ingredients to help the women with their health and can terminate pregnancies. She is seen as the weirdo in society’s eyes.
These women’s lives intersect and the pressures on each of them affect their relationship with each other.
The nuances of each of these stories gives an exploration of the insidious nature of sexism, and the use of labels rather than names show how despite women being told that they can have it all, they are still boxed into certain categories and have expectations placed on them by society.
For example, The Mender is visited by many women looking for gynecological health treatment, as many clinics for women’s health were forced to shut down. Despite this service to the locals, she is still an easy target because she doesn’t fit conventional norms when blame is needed to be placed on someone.
We get the majority of the information of how the laws were implemented from The Biographer. While there were protests against the Personhood amendment, and huge publicity and online petitions, she watched the movement from her computer.
The book not only shows the difficulties of seeking underground abortions, but shows that they can be safe when carried out properly and that a resistance against the amendment exists.
The Biographer , at one point, sees a poster for a meeting “Repeal the 28th Amendment” featuring speakers from women on waves.
Throughout the book we see that characters feel that they could have been more active before the law was introduced and it serves as a warning as to what can happen if the establishment are trusted to “do the right thing” without challenge.
This book is described as the new “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and as it is set in a world so close to ours, it could fit nicely as a bridge between now and the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.
This book should be required reading for any person in Ireland who is not yet active in the movement for repeal as it so aptly describes the importance of fighting against a conservative establishment.
Like in this book, in Ireland there are underground ways to safely have abortions, and Women on waves have visited as well, first with on boat in 2001 and whose founder, Rebecca Gomperts has worked with activist group ROSA. The difference is that with a weak political establishment after years of cuts, there is an unwillingness to crack down and enforce the laws because of the revolt it would trigger.
That said, Ireland has a church influenced state, and has always been deeply tied to religious conservatism since its foundations, putting pressure on the government to concede to legislation which would be as narrow as possible.
There have been lies spread for a number of years by pro-life advocates about the nature of abortions and the effects on the woman and The Times have reported that “a pro-life campaign group had hired a London-based political consultancy, linked to controversial aspects of the Brexit Leave campaign to support its drive in the referendum.”
The well funded anti-choice groups will undoubtedly be vicious in the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment, and as Red Clocks highlights, only through being active and unapologetically pro-choice, insisting on rights that go beyond a simple repeal, can women get bodily autonomy.
Beautifully written, and well researched, Zumas pulls the reader in to a narrative which is relatable, with echos of the Salem witch trials and Trump, crying out to the reader to question the role of women in society.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas is available NOW in the Kindle store & is available to order on Amazon. It will be published on the 8th of March in Ireland and the UK.