John Colson: Will we soon all live in Gilead?
Art characteristically imitates life, but the current state of our democracy, our culture and our prospects here in the United States is a crystal-clear and very scary case of life imitating art, in the form of our depressingly authoritarian political culture and its increasing resemblance to the fictional nation of Gilead.
For those who neither read Margaret Atwood’s riveting and frightening 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” nor watched its televised, multi-season adaptation of the same title, Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship that replaces the United States in some dystopian future, and immediately relegates women to the role of baby-making slaves of the new order.
In Atwood’s story, the overthrow of the old U.S. government came about after pollution and other problems have rendered most individuals, male and female, infertile.
To overcome this difficulty, with its capacity to terminate humanity as we know it, a cabal of theocratic and puritanically oriented insurrectionists assassinate the U.S. president and members of Congress in order to return the nation to its supposed puritan roots and put the few remaining fertile women in their “proper” place, meaning barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, so to speak.
In a development that might have been a great plot point in Atwood’s literary hands, the current U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) seems determined to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which would reverse more than a half-century of judicial precedent in terms of a woman’s right to end a pregnancy, as well as having a monstrous ripple effect in the broader arena of women’s rights in general.
And the motivation behind the high court’s thinking on the abortion issue, at least, comes largely from the religious right, which has joined forces with a wide range of anti-government forces around the nation whose main interest is in making Donald Trump’s Republican Party the permanent and exclusive rulers of the land.
In Atwood’s words, the current situation in this country is summed up in two declarative sentences that headlined her recent essay in the May 13 edition of The Atlantic magazine: “I invented Gilead; the Supreme Court is making it real.”
In the essay, Atwood explained that in the 1980s she started working on the tale, but that she abandoned it several times as “too far-fetched.”
“Silly me,” she continues in the next line. “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?”
I, unfortunately, agree completely with Atwood’s thinking, and have said so several times in this space in recent times.
As Atwood notes, the recent leaked draft of a possible SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe, written by arch-conservative Justice Samuel Alito, one of the court’s most strident “originalists” who maintains that anything that was not specifically written into the original U.S. Constitution has no constitutional, legal validity. Alito also relies on his belief that Roe should be overturned because it is not “deeply rooted” in “our history and tradition.”
OK, responded Atwood, conceding that the Constitution “has nothing to say about women’s reproductive health. But the original document does not mention women at all.” Which is in keeping with the foundation of Gilead’s attitude toward women in Atwood’s book — women are good for raising babies and not much else.
In that case, Atwood asks, why not simply take the vote away from women? It’s only been a matter of accepted law since the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which also was strenuously opposed because women’s suffrage was not in the original document.
Atwood and others have noted that if the high court does dump Roe onto the judicial trash heap of history, it will affect much more than reproductive rights, but could open the door for a return to forced sterilization, which was legalized in a 1927 SCOTUS case, Buck v. Bell, which remains on the books despite being nullified by subsequent court decisions.
“Thus a ‘deeply rooted’ tradition is that women’s reproductive organs do not belong to the women who possess them,” Atwood reasoned. “They belong only to the state.”
And since anti-abortion logic is that a fetus is alive from “conception,” when a mass of cells in a woman’s womb supposedly become “ensouled,” meaning they gain a soul.
But this judgment depends on religious belief, so that if Roe is overturned, and if Republicans regain control of the national government and impose a nationwide ban on abortions, what is deemed a sin in certain religious traditions might become a crime for the entire nation.
Over the next couple of years’ worth of elections, we have to ask ourselves if we all really want to live in an actualized version of Gilead, which is still a national fate that is avoidable.
Think about it.
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