The focal atrocity in The Handmaid’s Tale is state-sponsored sexual assault, depicted in the most recent episode in gratuitously horrific fashion, as a heavily pregnant June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was raped by Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) while Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) held her down. But the Gilead regime is constructed on another form of cruelty, too: It routinely removes children from their biological parents and breaks up families under the pretext of laws and scripture. The second season has portrayed this practice in more detail. In the second episode, a flashback showed how Emily (Alexis Bledel) was separated from her wife and their son at the airport, as the family sought refuge in Canada. “The document is no longer recognized,” a TSA agent told her sneeringly, dismissing her marriage certificate. “You are not married … It’s forbidden … by the law.” Overnight, a decision made by Gilead’s commanders eliminated Emily’s relationship and rights to her child.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, handmaids are forced to bear biological children with commanders within the regime, and to nurse those children until they relinquish them to the commanders’ wives. But children born to women who are deemed morally unfit are also taken away and reassigned to infertile couples approved by the state. In the most recent episode, “The Last Ceremony,” June was reunited briefly with the daughter, Hannah, who was taken away from her as June and her family also tried to flee Gilead for Canada. “Did you try to find me?” Hannah asked. June’s eyes pulsated with pain and despair. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there for you,” she replied. “To protect you. I wanted to.” At the end of the episode, a sobbing Hannah was forcibly extracted from June’s arms by an armed guard and pulled into a car.
The scene was an agonizing one, with echoes of the first-season episode where June screamed and shook and swore from the inside of a limousine while Serena sadistically dangled a glimpse of Hannah in front of her as a threat. Watching it this week, after recent news reports revealed that almost 2,000 children have been removed from their parents by U.S. officials at the border over the course of six weeks, is hard to bear. The Trump administration has offered a variety of excuses and explanations for the decision to separate children from families seeking to enter the country. Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, agreed. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” she told reporters.
If Sessions and Sanders are really intent on using a literal interpretation of the Bible to justify inhumane policy, The Handmaid’s Tale is a road map for how to do so. In this week’s episode, Commander Waterford furiously sputtered out Genesis 30:1 while raping June, spurring himself on while inoculating himself from even his own sense of shame. Earlier in the season, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) riffed on 1 Peter 5:10 while handcuffing a handmaid to a gas stove and holding her arm in the flames. “This is painful for me as well,” Aunt Lydia said, “but only in suffering will we find grace.” When Nick (Max Minghella) was married to a 15-year-old girl he’d never met in a mass ceremony, the minister quoted Genesis 1:28 as the primary goal of Gilead: “Be fruitful and multiply.”