Even after one full season of The Handmaid’s Tale, we don't know the complete story of the formation of Gilead. Of course, we know some of the details of how Gilead came to be — the essential ones. We know that five years ago, a group of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob staged a highly successful coup on the United States government, and radically refigured the contours of America into a state called the Republic of Gilead.
Aside from broadly hating women, the Sons of Jacob's impetus for creating Gilead stems from a vast infertility issue. Simply put, the global birth rate in The Handmaid's Tale is in sharp decline. Gilead, with its rigid gender roles, seeks to remedy that decline. In this new society, modelled off ideals from the Old Testament, men and women are sorted into rigid gender roles. Women are breeders, caretakers, and colony workers. Men are soldiers, providers, and architects of the state. In a world in which reproduction has become challenging, their primary goal is to reproduce (but do so piously).
According to a visit from the Mexican trade delegates in season 1, episode 6 of The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead has been successful in doing so. The trade delegate, Ambassador Castillo (Zabryna Guevara), tells June (Elisabeth Moss) that in her Mexican hometown, a city about the size of Boston, a child has not been born for the last six years. “My country is dying,” Mrs. Castillo tells June. Castillo has come to Gilead to barter for Gilead’s most valuable commodity: handmaids.
We also know that both men and women are affected by infertility. When it becomes apparent that Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is infertile, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) forces June to shack up with Nick (Max Minghella) and get pregnant, which she does.
So we know that infertility is a) global and b) affects everyone. But what’s the cause? In The Handmaid’s Tale, infertility is linked to another one of Gilead’s prominent problems: pollution. As revealed in the season 1 episode "A Woman's Place," inorganic farming and radioactivity are to blame for declining fertility. But fear not: Gilead has a solution for our sick, sick planet, too. In addition to changing the way men and women interact, Gilead has changed the way men and women live. Gilead now only grows organic crops, and has successfully reduced carbon emissions by 78% in three years. Gilead’s solution for the radioactive waste is more dire: Colony workers, aka women who are considered unfit for Gilead, spend their days toiling in the sun, trying to undo the damage. Together, these drastic efforts have been successful in maintaining a level of fertility.
For a more definitive answer on the link between pollution and infertility, we should turn to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. The book, which is the first-person account of an unnamed handmaid, ends with a surprise twist. As it turns out, this account, which was recovered from a safe house on the Maine border of Canada, is being read at the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” 200 years in the future.
The end of the book is called “Historical Notes,” in which scholars comment drily on the society Offred had endured. One such note illuminates potential theories for the drop in fertility, ranging from access to birth control to STDs to ecological disaster.
“The reasons for this decline are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterised the period, as well as to leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal—in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays," Atwood writes.
In the universe of the book, only one in four pregnancies was successful due to such omnipresent pollution. The Historical Notes also posits that a virus was to blame for infertility. “Many of the Commanders had come in contact with a sterility-causing virus that was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experiments with mumps,” Atwood writes, with a typically Atwoodian level of detail.
So far, this sterility-causing virus hasn’t been mentioned in The Handmaid’s Tale, though it actually seems plausible. We’ve only seen one handmaid made pregnant by a Commander: Janine (Madeline Brewer). As mentioned, Commander Waterford is likely to be infertile as well. If such infertility is rampant among the Commanders, then their handmaids are almost for set decoration. June and her fellow handmaids are raped and paraded around leafy Cambridge suburbs to demonstrate just what Gilead is capable of.