From author Hillary Jordan’s website:
Hillary Jordan’s novel When She Woke is a dark but necessary tale, especially for our society today. It’s a dystopian narrative about a future where women are denied a legal right to choice.
Hannah Payne is a woman living in a future where our country no longer has the separation of church and state. There’s even a Secretary of Faith assigned to the President. Because of the overcrowding of prisons, only the most violent criminals are incarcerated. All others are given a sentence of a specific number of years in which they must live as a “Chrome”. Chromes are forced to have their skin color genetically altered to a color that suits the severity of their crime. And, women have no access to legal and safe reproductive healthcare: abortion is illegal.
Hannah grows up in a religious family, but Hannah’s intense curiosity causes her to question some basic Evangelical teachings. Her mother is quick to hush her and her father, though a bit more understanding and sympathetic; does not provide her with answers but rather seconds his wife’s opinion that she should merely stop asking questions.
And Hannah does, at least out loud. She strives to fit into her family and control the desire she has to learn more and experience something different. That is, until she meets the strikingly handsome and renowned Reverend Aidan Dale in the only predictable part of this original novel. In an allusion to The Scarlet Letter, the married Reverend Dale and the innocent Hannah are inexplicably drawn together and eventually give into the temptation to have an affair.
Though an extremely tired love story, there are a few saving graces in Aidan and Hannah’s relationship: for one, it’s short, mostly told through Hannah’s memories after she embarks on a new life and is not the main focus of the novel. Secondly, Jordan uses their relationship to comment on religion as well: Hannah and Aidan feel they are drawn together in a move that God must have ordained, considering their strong passion.
Religion is a central issue throughout the novel, and not just in Hannah and Aidan’s relationship and Jordan does a fantastic job addressing it. It is not demonized nor portrayed as a flawless covenant. Rather, Jordan allows it to be a reflection on the good and bad aspects of religion in today’s society. It’s refreshing to read a novel that address such complex issues in an even-handed manner. It seems as though Jordan, through this novel, is inviting you into respectful debate and introspection when respect. And, introspection is all too often missing in our current discussion of religion and choice.
As a result of the oh-so-holy relationship between Aidan and Hannah, Hannah becomes pregnant. Because Hannah would do anything to protect Aidan and he is cemented throughout the world as a great leader of faith, Hannah decides that her best option is abortion. This is an important distinction between saying Hannah decides it’s her only option: it’s not. Jordan makes it clear that though Hannah knows she could tell Aidan and have the baby and her family would support her. Hannah just does not want to live with the inevitable consequences- Aidan’s ruined career and shame, her own disgrace, their inability still to be together as Aidan has told her he will never leave his wife, the shame upon his wife who is incapable of conceiving, etc. Hannah believes from the bottom of her heart that abortion is her best option.
Her illegal abortion is a compelling reminder of what young adults in my generation never had to live through: the fear of knowing you are risking your life in the hands of a stranger, unconstrained by the rules of law, one who could victimize you with no repercussions, but yet are forced to out of desperation. The beauty the entire novel is that through these heart-wrenching scenes, Jordan argues for legal abortion without using heated and divisive language. She merely shows us a glimpse into what would happen if abortion were illegal – and the personal tale, though fictional, is one of the most powerful arguments I’ve ever read for legalized abortion. Pro-choice or anti-choice, labels make no difference and Jordan doesn’t use them- I believe that any individual would feel for Hannah as they read about her experience. Also, although it’s a powerful pro-choice novel, Jordan does not simplify the multitude of issues surrounding abortion. Hannah does believe that her fetus is a living person and her choice to go through with an abortion is both easy and tryingly difficult: she knows it is the best choice for her and Aidan but Hannah loves and can picture her life with a child.
Of course, after Hannah’s illegal abortion, she is caught, arrested and sentenced to sixteen years of being a Chrome- a “Red” to be exact because she has committed a “violent” crime. Her entire world falls apart and the remainder of the novel is centered on Hannah’s experiences as an outlaw- the cruelty of the people around her and her struggle not only to survive but also to define herself now that she does not have to fill a certain role in society. This novel is about the sanctity of choice not only when it comes to reproductive rights but also in being able to choose your own path in life and define who you are as an individual in a broader sense. Reproductive choice is an inherent part of this, but a small part- Hannah’s choice to have an abortion is far easier than her struggle to define herself- who she really is and what she believes.
In our current political climate, women’s reproductive rights are slowly slipping away. Though the novel is a fantastical representation of a future without legal abortion, it still portrays some important and devastating problems associated with banning abortion. A world without abortion would be one that would be dangerous for women. As NARAL Pro-Choice America states, “The legalization of abortion in the United States led to the near elimination of deaths from the procedure. Between 1973 and 1997, the mortality rate associated with legal abortion procedures declined from 4.1 to 0.6 per 100,000 abortions. The American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs credits the shift from illegal to legal abortion services as an important factor in the decline of the abortion-related death rate after Roe v. Wade.” While Jordan’s portrayal of the future is science fiction, her portrayal of illegal abortion is accurate and stays away from the extreme- Hannah’s actual abortion experience could easily be the experience of someone forced into an illegal abortion.
Instead of telling or arguing outright for choice, Jordan shows with eloquence and compassion the reasons why a young woman deserves the ability and respect to make her own choices.