The Handmaid's Tale: How do they determine which women can give birth? (spoilers thru ep. 3)

It’s been more than 20 years since I read the book and I know I’ve forgotten at least some of it, and I’m about three episodes into the series. But how does the repressive new government Gilead “sort” the women into this new caste system?

Women become handmaids because they are potentially capable of giving birth to healthy babies. June/Offred already had a healthy baby, so she’s a given. But what about the others? It can’t be just age, because Serena Joy looks as if she could be even younger than June, and she’d certainly prefer to have her own baby if she could. So why does she need a handmaid?

Other women become “Marthas” and are just basically cooks and household servants because they can’t give birth. But the Martha who works in Serena Joy’s household doesn’t look significantly older than June, so why would she be deemed “un-usuable” by the state? From what we see of her, the Martha whom Emily/Ofglen #1 had an affair with didn’t look to be beyond child-birthing years either. So it can’t be that the new regime just says younger women become Handmaids while older women who are likely post menopausal become Marthas.

The thought came to me during Emily’s trial. The Martha she was hooking up with got hanged, but Emily was “spared” (if you can call it that) because she could still have children. How did they KNOW the Martha could never have a child? Is there some kind of test they could (and would) do to women to see if they were viable “breeding stock”?

What I remember is that you’re left to assume it’s through medical imagining/tests of the kind that are available today. Maybe ovarian reserves, or open fallopian tubes, or good hormone levels or something like that. What I specifically remember is that sometimes, a handmaid fails to get pregnant for two or three different hosts, and then she is Disappeared.

I’ve never seen the TV series, but I recently re-read the book, so I can tell you what the book says.

Because she’s infertile. (Or her husband is – the party line in Gilead is that infertility is always the woman’s fault.) In the novel Serena Joy is an older woman and probably post-menopausal, but the primary reason for the whole Handmaid system is widespread infertility and a high rate of birth defects. According to the book there are multiple reasons for this, including environmental pollution, STDs, and possibly exposure to diseases developed as biological weapons.

The Gileadeans can do the same kinds of tests we can do, they didn’t lose the technology. They object to artificial insemination and other “unnatural” forms of reproduction for religious reasons, but not to fertility testing. In the book Handmaids have regular medical check-ups to make sure their reproductive systems are healthy. The subplot you’re describing doesn’t exist in the novel, but in the book Offred listens to the Marthas talking and it’s established that the two who work where she lives are infertile. IIRC one of them had her tubes tied in the pre-Gileadean days.

Handmaid status is also reserved for women who are considered guilty of some “gender crime” but not too dangerous or incorrigible to be allowed to live in the homes of the elite. Fertile women who are considered virtuous can get (or stay) married. Fertile women who aren’t virtuous but aren’t suitable Handmaids are typically sent away to labor camps in “the Colonies”, although they may be executed for severe enough crimes. Marthas may be seen as more expendable than Handmaids. It’s mentioned in the book that you don’t see many elderly Marthas around, with the implication that they’re either sent to the Colonies or killed when they’re no longer useful.

No matter how “virtuous” any fertile Gileadean woman not under the protection of a Commander (wife/daughter/etc.) is at risk of being arrested on a flimsy pretext and turned into a Handmaid. I’m pretty sure fertile Marthas or Aunts don’t exist since they’d either get married of (presumably Commanders & their sons get “first dibs” on fertile brides) or arrested for something and turned into Handmaids.

They don’t seem to be that extreme at the time of the novel, although things have already gotten worse than when the Gileadeans first seized power. Offred was initially safe because she was married, and it’s mentioned that many gay men and lesbians quickly married each other for protection. But within just a few years marriages are declared invalid if either spouse is divorced (this is how they get Offred), and IIRC so are marriages from non-approved religious denominations. The epilogue (set about 100 years later) mentions that as time went on the Gileadeans came up with more and more reasons to make women be Handmaids.

However, at the time of the novel there are still apparently many women (“Econowives”) who are married to non-elite men, and it presumably would have been very unpopular for the Gileadeans to hand all the women over to the Commanders.