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YA Lit, Roe v. Wade, and the Future of Girls’ Bodies

2013 December 10
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It’s hard to believe that it’s been forty years since Roe v. Wade– forty years of continuous discussion, dissension, and dramatic debate on both sides of the issue. And the conversation is hardly over; earlier this year Wendy Davis made filibustering history and just last month the Women’s Health Protection Act was introduced into Congress. Given the prominence of women’s reproductive rights in the news today, it is no wonder that YA literature is also tackling this highly controversial topic.

when she woke hillary jordan coverThe books examined below can all trace their thematic heritage back to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke (2012 Amelia Bloomer List) is the most obvious successor to this seminal work on women’s reproductive rights.  A reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, the book is set in a future theocratic American where abortion is illegal and women who are found guilty are charged with murder. Crimes are punished by a method called “chroming” wherein one’s skin is genetically altered to become a color that correlatesto the crime committed. The novel follows the story of Hannah Prynne who becomes pregnant after a steamy affair with a celebrity preacher. Her decision to abort the fetus and keep her lover’s identity secret results in an engaging, albeit disquieting, tale of the limitations of love, the effects of criminalizing abortion, and ultimately one woman’s quest for independence.

What I found most interesting about When She Woke was not the focus on abortion but rather the many ways in which Jordan explores how and why people or institutions control another person’s body. The very idea of ‘chroming’ begs the question of how much control should a government have over any individual’s body and frames the debate around imprisonment and rehabilitation in an unusual light. In fact, it furthers the discussion by looking at how these ‘chromed’ men and women are at the mercy of a system that allows for, and even encourages, an increase in violence against them as they automatically become lesser citizens. Indeed, the chromed women in the novel are continually subjected to the threat of rape, sexual coercion, and ongoing humiliation. But it is not only the chromed women who suffer; Hannah’s sister is a victim of domestic violence, while the preacher’s wife-due to his previous affairs-struggles with an STD. This focus on control and who wields it is at the heart of the novel and will make for excellent discussion and debate amongst the older teens and adults who read this book.

glowAmy Kathleen Ryan’s Glow (a YALSA 2013 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers) also centers on issues of control and power, although Ryan takes a very different spin on the theme by examining the psychology of survival and what humans are willing to do to ensure it. The basic premise is that two ships have departed a badly damaged Earth to seek a new planet; one is successful in having a generation of children born on board, the other falls victim to a virus that renders all the adult women sterile. When the New Horizon encounters the Empyrean, the crew launches an attack, kills the adults and kidnaps the young girls. They then forcibly remove the eggs of all the fertile teenage girls, justifying their actions by arguing that the survival of the human race is paramount and that the greater good should always prevail (a standard trope of dystopian leadership).

For a YA novel, the premise is exceedingly disturbing, and yet also believable. The teenage girls have always known that childbearing at a young age is a necessary endeavor in order to preserve the human race. The responsibility to do so weighs heavily on all of them further limiting what choices they feel like they have. The actions of the New Horizon only serve to emphasize the power that adults wield over the teenagers in their control (another common theme in YA taken to a horrifying extreme). I appreciated the author’s willingness to delve into the psychological implications of not only the terribly invasive egg-harvesting surgery but also the long-term effect of knowing that dozens of their biological children will be born to other women without their consent. Add to the mix that it is women who are largely dictating these actions, and you have a remarkably complex and sinister vision of how young girls are so often at the mercy of those in power.

Lastly, Megan McCafferty’s duology Bumped and Thumped, although also focused on how adults control and exploit teenagers, is markedly different in tone than the previous two novels. A satire that closely considers the commodification of young women’s bodies, the books describe a world where all women are infertile over the age of eighteen due to a virus. Consequently, adults in this society pay teenagers to be pregnant and give birth to their children. The world McCafferty creates borders on the absurd with tweens wearing fake baby bumps, “Born to Breed” shirts, and Gestation Celebrations. Nevertheless, she largely succeeds in her vision and the story of twins separated at birth–one fully committed to being a Surrogate and the other a conservative Christian who sees her twin’s actions as sinful—is at once hilarious, terrifying, and thought-provoking.

Bumped and Thumped are particularly successful in their ability to provoke questions rather than merely preach a message. Both sisters are flawed and neither one of their viewpoints is clearly the “right” one. The ethical considerations around paid surrogacy are examined and the question of control becomes more nuanced. In particular, class becomes a consideration as girls opt to get pregnant in exchange for college tuition, leading to larger questions of what defines ‘choice’. It’s hard not to ask if the required sex act with the girls’ bumping partner is not actually a form of prostitution and if so, what that means for the entire process these girls undergo. Finally, providing a backdrop for both novels is the relentless, insidious, and manipulative media presence that bombards the teenagers with the message that their self-worth is crucially linked to their fertility and number of pregnancies. This leads to a high percentage of teenagers making the choice to become pregnant without the maturity or agency to understand the consequences of their actions.

It’s worth noting that all these books are sci-fi—dystopias that look at the future of women’s reproductive rights from a speculative stance.  Interestingly, all four books move away from abortion as the primary question at hand, instead highlighting a number of other ethical considerations. As always, the issues raised are based on some aspect of the present—from surrogate clinics in India to mass media’s effect on women’s self-perception—and as such are particularly compelling reads for both teenagers and adults to mull over, debate, and enjoy.

-Alegria Barclay, currently reading When the Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellison

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