Thursday, May 12, 2022
Just days after Politico published the leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Saturday Night Live opened with its own comedic analysis of the Supreme Court decision purportedly overturning Roe v. Wade. “Justice Samuel Alito explains that no woman has a right to an abortion, and, in fact, abortion is a crime,” a narrator explains, before highlighting several excerpts from the draft citing 13th century common law on punishments for ending a pregnancy after the “quickening” of a “foetus.”
The opening sketch then takes viewers back in time to dramatize the “profound moment of moral clarity” that Alito seems to believe should be the basis of our abortion laws in 2022. British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, in a mock medieval pageboy haircut, comes to a “revelation” about the need to criminalize abortion in an age of constant plague, disastrous hygiene, witch obsession, and flat-earth maps. The sketch brilliantly demonstrates the absurdity of reading a 21st century Constitution in light of a legal and scientific history most Americans would not embrace today.
The SNL skit posed an obvious question: Why would it make sense to rely upon 13th century law to decide something so important to half the population of the United States? It’s a question best answered by constitutional law scholars like myself. We all know Alito’s interpretive move—it’s called originalism or textualism—and it is full of theoretical complexity. For the most part, this is legal inside baseball. So why this lesson on originalism on SNL? And why now?
Because Alito’s leaked opinion in Dobbs was a bombshell. It takes up some of the most extreme rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement while citing, as SNL points out, centuries-old and outdated legal ideas. And so when people sat down to read the opinion, even the comedy writers at SNL saw what ordinarily the public pays no attention to: the absurdity of a constitutional methodology called originalism at work.