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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Amanda Wicks

SNL’s Sharp, Frustrated Take on Abortion Rights

Will Heath / NBC

In seeking historical precedence for the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito stretched far beyond the ideology of originalism—the guiding precept among a certain conservative faction that constitutional law should not stray far from the Constitution. His leaked 98-page opinion, intent on revoking, at the federal level, women’s rights to privacy and bodily autonomy by denying access to abortion, reached all the way back to 13th- and 17th-century England, when new laws gave men greater control over pregnancy and, by extension, women’s bodies.  

Last night’s Saturday Night Live exploded Alito’s notion of tradition by venturing back to the medieval period and delivering a searing rejoinder. During the cold open, the host, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the cast members James Austin Johnson and Andrew Dismukes played 13th-century men who discussed the need to ban abortion. The sketch underscored the monumental gap between then and now in order to attack the restrictive beliefs informing the conservative justice’s opinion.

In the bit, Cumberbatch stumbled upon the idea of outlawing abortion while cleaning out “the hole … where we poop.” The idea initially befuddled his compatriots. “You mean like the law we have against pointy shoes?” Johnson asked. “Or the law where if you hunt deer in the forest, they cut off your genitals?” Dismukes added. Cumberbatch responded with ironic earnestness, “Exactly. Something fair and reasonable like those laws. We should make a law that will stand the test of time, so that hundreds and hundreds of years from now, they’ll look back and say, ‘No need to update this one at all. They nailed it back in 1235.’”  

SNL’s cold opens tend to be ambitious sketches aimed at the week’s major headlines. More often than not, the show strives to satirize several different marks rather than home in on a single point. But last night’s open delivered a focused barrage of punch lines about how men in the Middle Ages understood the world and viewed women, and questioned why that period’s principles should serve as the legal precedent for our contemporary age. Cumberbatch summarized the point aptly: “Well, it’s clear to me that we’ve reached the limits of human knowledge,” he said, pointing to his bowl-shaped hair. “We found the haircut; we know the sun is the moon when it’s happy; and we trust the Catholic Church with all our money and our children.” Cecily Strong deepened the debate between the three men, playing a townsperson who disputed their reasoning. “I was just wondering,” she asked, “since I’m almost at the childbearing age of 12, shouldn’t women have the right to choose, since having a baby means, like, a 50 percent chance of dying?”

SNL didn’t contain the topic of abortion to just the cold open. “Weekend Update” compared Alito’s decision to cherry-pick stances from English jurists who lived during a time when women had few, if any, rights to an irate social-media post. The choice, the show asserted, feels less like a rational Court judgment and more like a fallacious argument that a fringe Facebook group might circulate as fact. Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon criticized the conservative justices from a different angle. She delivered a blank-eyed depiction of Justice Amy Coney Barrett; her character advocated for women to “do your nine” months and give up their babies for adoption. McKinnon’s Barrett displayed a vapidity meant to further comment on the Court’s out-of-touch stance.

The show’s take on abortion rights built on the frustrated tone Strong established earlier in the season. Following the Texas state legislature’s September 2021 vote to ban all abortions after six weeks, she appeared in a similarly memorable “Weekend Update.” Playing “Goober the Clown who had an abortion when she was 23,” Strong artfully skewered the complicated conditions that engender silence and shame after an abortion.

In the conversation about reproductive rights, conservatives have been dominating, telling “better” stories, the writer Rebecca Traister recently argued. But last night, SNL dismantled the regressive tale Alito established with his opinion and crafted a sharp-edged rebuttal of its own.

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