By now, the dismissal of the Roe v Wade case by the US Supreme Court comes as little surprise. We’ve known this is imminent since Judge Alito’s memo was leaked about a month ago. And yet it still delivers a deep shock – a series of shocks, in fact. Stunned, we ask how could this happen? as if we hadn’t known for weeks that it was a more or less done deal.
The execution of the chilling Handmaid’s Tale scenario is shocking: our growing suspicion that Margaret Atwood’s fictional dystopia – a society where women are forced to bear children and are brutally punished for disobedience – is closer to reality than we imagined to have. What is shocking is this evidence of the court’s desire and ability to control and punish women in order to deprive us of our constitutional rights. What is shocking is the reckless disregard for the additional suffering this ruling will inflict on poor women, women of color and people in rural areas. What is shocking is the memory of three of the current judges swearing under oath to uphold the precedent set by Roe v Wade.
What is shocking is the realization that we live in a country that now boasts some of the most misogynistic and repressive laws in the world. What is shocking is the realization that the institution in which I grew up, which was committed to the constitution’s most precious guarantees and the highest and most sane bipartisan ideals of justice, is now in the hands of a powerful faction of extremists.
But what shocks me the most is the fact that according to polls that keep popping up and being reported, a sizeable majority of Americans support abortion rights and oppose outright banning. According to the latest Gallup poll, 85% of the population believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. What is remarkable is less this high number than the discrepancy between this number and the substance of the Supreme Court judgment. Shocking is another fact we have known or suspected for some time: that we live under minority rule, that the wishes of the majority no longer determine government policy in some of the most fundamental ways, and it has become something of a joke to suggest that our government is responding to “the will of the people” at the highest level.
In the meantime, these shocks are being intensified and amplified by how little we seem willing or able to do anything about the slow-motion stealth with which the seeds of autocracy are being sown. “We live under minority rule,” we say, and then plan the kids’ birthday parties, try to find a job and pay the bills, complain at the gas pump, visit our friends, celebrate the good weather and the new freedom brought by the recent pandemic downturn . Social media is teeming with valuable — and necessary — suggestions for circumventing the new measures: how to get abortion pills from abroad, how to help women travel to states where abortion is still legal. But I don’t yet have a really viable and broad plan to influence lawmakers in the so-called “trigger states” that banned abortion immediately after the Supreme Court ruling.
It’s hard to overlook that our passivity is encouraged by the mainstream media’s commitment to “fair and balanced” reporting. In the coverage I saw on Judgment Night — not just on primetime channels, but on PBS as well — cheering was matched by the “pro-life” (that unfortunate term that suggests his opponents are ) granted the same time anti life) faction and to the anger and frustration of women who just want control over their own bodies. How can it not reinforce our sense that the country is equally divided, deeply and hopelessly fragmented and that therefore nothing can be done? In fact, the two sides are not equal, but one side is woefully underrepresented where it matters most.
It has never been more important to stand up for our rights—not just as women, not just as Americans, but as human beings. We need to talk to our friends, make plans, put relentless pressure on our state and local governments, and hold every political candidate accountable. Perhaps we need to forget our pressing concerns about inflation and gas prices just long enough to take to the streets with relentless frequency and in greater numbers to make our beliefs and voices heard.
Because the greatest shock of all would be to wake up one morning and find that while we were driving the kids to soccer practice and enjoying the welcome after-work cocktail, more and more of our rights were being stripped, as has happened in many countries, in which democracy disappeared, overnight and in the dark – when nobody was looking, so to speak. The tipping over of Roe v Wade should shock us even more than we already do – shock us to look beyond the Titanic dance floor and spot this iceberg looming our way not too far away.
Francine Prose is the author of The Vixen. She was also President of Pen America