Literature After the Era of Roe v. Wade

Bojan Srbinovski //

Paula Rego, Untitled
Paula Rego, Abortion Pastels, Untitled #4, 1998

“The right of privacy,” writes Justice Harry Blackmun in the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade, “whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action…or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” I first read Blackmun’s opinion as a student in an introductory course in a feminist, gender, and sexuality studies program. The historic opinion was bracketed, on either side, by Catharine MacKinnon’s “Roe v. Wade: A Study in Male Ideology” and the abortion chapter from Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women—suffice it to say that I have always been a little allergic to the hagiographization of Roe v. Wade. And indeed, it is by now accepted in many circles, I think, that the landmark case presents serious problems for pregnant women. A representative view is that of MacKinnon, for whom the accomplishment of Roe v. Wade lies not only in the securing of a legal right to abortion, but also the much more nefarious relegation of this choice (and the attending sexual arrangements) to the private sphere.

The response to Roe v. Wade in the field of literary studies is equally telling of its historical moment. Barbara Johnson’s “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion” remains the most important piece of literary criticism that takes up the issues raised by Roe. In reading several poems that gather around the topos of abortion—among others, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Mother,” Anne Sexton’s “The Abortion,” Adrienne Rich’s “To a Poet”—Johnson makes the stunning discovery that there are “ways in which legal and moral discussions of abortion tend to employ the same terms as those we have been using to describe the figure of apostrophe.”

These canonical works on Roe v. Wade have been top-of-mind recently as I have been following the Supreme Court’s careful response to the conservative right’s invitation to revisit the landmark ruling. Whatever case the Court was going to take up, it was guaranteed to attract a lot of attention, because it would be the first abortion-related case in which Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh’s new presence on the court would constitute a definite conservative majority. And indeed, in 2019, the Court granted certiorari to June Medical Services v. Gee (a Louisiana case, now renamed June Medical Services v. Russo), and oral arguments were heard in March of this year.

I suppose it would not be too pedantic to say that, in discussing Roe here, I am of course, including the contemporaneously released Doe v. Bolton, which invalidated Georgia’s abortion law. Under that law, the only exemptions to a total ban on abortion were rape, fetal deformity, or the possibility of serious injury to the mother. I am also including Planned Parenthood v. Casey, significant in large part for its implementation of the “undue burden” standard on abortion restrictions, which overturned the trimester framework of Roe. This last case is crucial for the decisions that will be made in June Medical Services v. Russo, because the disputed law turns on the issue of admitting privileges. This Louisiana case is virtually identical to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a Texas case from 2016. Both of these cases constitute the same kind of attack on abortion. In Hellerstead, as in June Medical, the state defended an admitting privileges law, arguing that its intention was to protect the health of pregnant women. (Of course, the effect, rather than the intention, is the severe restriction of access to abortion.) In 2016, the majority of the court agreed that the state has an interest in protecting the health of pregnant women but also said that there is no real evidence to support the claim that this admitting privileges law can advance such an interest. That was in 2016; the makeup of the Court is very different today.

The literature of Roe, if historicized in a meaningful way, would reveal the concerns of several generations of feminist scholars. Some of those concerns might be our own; others, it seems, would be quite different from ours. I may not be a representative example of the scholarly community, being a white non-American male, but I have spent the better part of the past decade thinking about figures and I suspect I am not the only one who, at the moment, has a hard time getting interested in apostrophe as a figure that structures our understanding of personhood, especially if that is where the analysis stops. Legislation is now being promulgated that makes abortion less and less available, especially to poor people and people of color, and the engagement with figures won’t suffice as the final goal of a literary criticism that seeks to respond to the crises of the moment. We need, I think, ways of engaging with literature that enable us, in Caroline Levine’s words, “to build forms to sustain large numbers that will afford equality, sustainability, and access to shared resources.” Methods of reading that enable such a critical practice will be central to the work of anyone who cares about protecting vulnerable people.

It is impossible to outline such a practice here, but it might help to begin with some questions: What will the literature of June Medical v. Russo be? In what sense, if any, can the reading of texts, ancient and contemporary, respond to the restriction of a choice that affords a fundamental freedom to women and trans people? What texts will attend to the affects (or affectlessness) of anger, grief, and fear that this likely ruling will evoke? Will it be Ntozake Shange’s grueling for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, especially this monologue in abortion cycle #1? Will it be Wordsworth’s “The Thorn,” which transforms the inherited tradition of German infanticide ballads, and permits a genuine engagement with the traumatic history that speaks through the story of Martha Ray? Will it be Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Atwood explores what Jia Tolentino called “the tale of a woman who, in trying to save herself, erects the regime that ruins her?” Will it be literature that has yet to be written? Will it not be literature at all? What modes of thought will become available once we find ourselves on the other side of the gathering dark?

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