a photo of people holding up sings saying abort the patriarchy

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Opinion

Opinion: What classic literature can tell us about a post-Roe v. Wade America

Reading fictional novels can help people process history from the past and the future.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/nicollella/" target="_self">Ella Nicoll</a>

Ella Nicoll

October 14, 2022

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade, a landmark ruling from 1973 that had federally protected the right to abortion. The six conservative justices wrote in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions. On the contrary, an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

While ignoring America’s history of legal abortions, which existed from the 17th century to mid-19th century, the conservative justices are harkening back to America’s Puritanical history through their ruling. The significance of the decision to overturn a woman’s right to bodily autonomy cannot be understated and it is difficult to predict the consequences of that decision. However, literature including “The Crucible,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “The Scarlet Letter” can help us understand the significance — and potential danger — of this decision.

“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, a fictionalized retelling of the Salem witch trials, illustrates the dangers of intertwining the government with religion. The reversal of Roe v. Wade inches America closer to a return of a synthesized church and state as personal liberties are infringed upon in the name of religious ideals.

“The Crucible” reflects the reality of living in 17th century New England where settlements were governed under a strict Puritan theocracy. Miller writes, “…the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine[sic] of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies.”

In the play, witch trials were conducted under a court of law. However, the judges were influenced by spiritual “evidence” of witchcraft, which goes against the teachings of the church. For example, a judge asks Mary Warren, one of the accused, “Mary Warren, do you witch her? I say to you, do you send your spirit out?”. By creating a society where religion and government are intertwined, The Crucible’s Puritans unknowingly instigated a chain of events that led to the demise of their town and the loss of innocent life.

All of this tragedy could have been avoided if only they understood the value of separating church and state. Verdicts should be based on verifiable facts, not on questionable eyewitness testimony that someone’s neighbor cursed their cow.

One lesson that we can take away from “The Crucible” is the importance of separating law and religion. In fact, the very foundation of the United States was premised upon the Puritans’ desire to escape the religious persecution that they endured at the hands of the British monarchy and government. The Founding Fathers looked back at these moments in history when writing the Constitution and decided that the United States would never have an official religion or uphold any religious ideologies as law.

The First Amendment codifies this separation of church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In a letter, Thomas Jefferson paraphrased this law as the “separation of church and state,” which we now recognize as meaning that religion cannot play a part in legislation.

If America starts to blur the line between church and state, then there is a larger possibility of having the government dictate which religion people can or cannot follow. Already in our still very new post-Roe America, we are witnessing high-ranking government officials invoking religion in their statements on legal proceedings.

According to the Guardian“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad…Today, along with millions across Louisiana and America, I rejoice with my departed Mom and the unborn children with her in Heaven!” said Louisiana’s attorney general, Jeff Landry, in an official statement after the Supreme Court’s decision was announced.

Another classic American work of literature set in the 17th century that illustrates the dangers of a theocracy is “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This novel, which tells the story of a woman ostracized by her community for adultery, details the risks of weaponizing a woman’s sexuality and fertility. In the post-Roe era where states such as Texas are enacting laws designed to persecute women who seek abortion, the parallels are striking and concerning.

Hester Prynne, the protagonist, is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for the majority of the novel in order to signify her societal role as a promiscuous and untrustworthy woman who had a child out of wedlock. Her neighbors use this visual cue to exclude her and her child, Pearl, from society with a self-constituted local judge going as far as to say, “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book.”

In the modern world, shunning is not a common occurrence because of its archaic nature and the psychological damage it causes to all involved. However, with the new laws being enacted after SCOTUS’ decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, some states, like Texas via SB8, are encouraging their citizens to self-police those who have either had an abortion, performed an abortion, or have in any other way assisted with an abortion. According to the Guardian,  “SB8 is enforced not by the state attorney general or other government officials, but by private citizens, who are encouraged to snitch on people who violate the abortion ban by filing civil lawsuits against them… they are promised a minimum of $10,000 in ‘damages’ if they win the suit – what abortion rights supporters are calling a ‘bounty’.”

For Hester, the shunning was community-wide and indefinite—she was still being ridiculed years later until her death. Modern women similarly are having their fertility weaponized. However, instead of being vilified for having a baby out of wedlock, 21st-century shunning punishes those who become pregnant but decide not to keep the fetus. In both cases, fictional and real, past and present, women are punished for their fertility. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is another narrative example of a world where women are stripped of their autonomy and their right to make their own reproductive choices.

In “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, a fictional America slowly transitions from a democracy to a theocracy known as Gilead where men, called the Commanders of the Faithful, hold absolute power and divide all women into six roles based on the Old Testament. In today’s increasingly polarized America, where basic civil liberties often don’t cross state lines, a transition into Gilead does not feel as fictional as when Atwood’s book was published in 1985. 

The novel is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford. Handmaids are assigned to Commanders and their explicit purpose is to bear their children. Through Offred’s eyes, the reader experiences the total domination of women and the violence perpetrated against them in the name of God, namely state-sanctioned rape known as the “Ceremony.” While Offred attempts to exert independent agency through her relationships with various other characters, the novel’s conclusion leaves both the narrator and the reader confused about her fate. Was she imprisoned by Gilead, or led to freedom by resistance fighters? As a woman in Gilead, she was ultimately nothing but a pawn. 

Unlike “The Crucible,” which was based on actual historical events, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was written with the future in mind, not the past. Atwood stated, According to the Atlantic, “I stopped writing it several times, because I considered it too far-fetched. Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?” A warning that we can take away from “The Handmaid’s Tale” is that Gilead didn’t happen overnight. The novel’s male populace grew restless while they watched women gain equality and purpose that surpassed antiquated household roles.

Their solution was to form the “Sons of Jacob,” a radical political group that eventually overthrew the unstable American government. Commander Fred, one of the initial members, tried to justify his actions by playing the victim: “‘There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel’ …. ‘Do they feel now?’ I say. ‘Yes,’ he says, looking at me. ‘They do.’”

In the non-fictitious, modern America, conservative politicians – some of whom are on the Supreme Court – are trying to challenge federal laws like Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges. The current Court draws parallels between the Sons of Jacob because even though far-right conservatism is becoming less mainstream as society progresses, they both are desperately trying to keep their power. Robert P. Jones, the founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) says, “In the meantime we’re going to be left with essentially an apartheid situation in the US where we’re going to have minority rule by this shrinking group that’s been able to seize the levers of power, even as their cultural democratic representation in the country shrinks.” I think it is still far-fetched to say America is turning into a real-life Gilead,  but I don’t think Atwood’s concerns should be wholly dismissed given the striking parallels between our current political climate and the fictitious rise of the Sons of Jacob. 

With the oversaturation of news constantly pummeling us through social media, it’s hard to fully process what’s going on in the world around us. I know from personal experience that many of my Gen Z peers are resorting to escapism and ignoring the news. However, understanding the implications of prior generations’ actions and their reverberations on everything from climate change to voting rights to the right to choose is critically important. And the best way to understand is through reading. While reading the news is important, it is not the only way to educate ourselves. I am compelling my Gen Z peers to simply pick up a book! Even fictional novels can convey important information about our past and our present; they are information in a story format. Books can help us escape, but they can also help us process what’s going on now and what could happen in the future.