When Abortion Comes to the Fore Onstage

There are topics we tend to shy from in drama as in life, and abortion is one of them.

The death of Bea Arthur, a little over a week ago, reminded us that this is now -- but wasn't always -- the case with TV series. More than 35 years ago, Arthur's iconic character, Maude Findlay, had "prime time's first abortion, in a two-part episode that aired two months before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country," as Rebecca Traister wrote in Salon. Like mainstream movies, TV prefers not to tell stories like that anymore.

Theater seldom bluntly deals with the issue of abortion, either, even peripherally -- which is odd, when you consider both the strong emotions it incites and how common it is. Or maybe that's not so peculiar, given how seldom women wield the pen that writes the script.

Its scarcity onstage makes all the more striking the fact that two current off-Broadway plays do deal with abortion, their approaches to the topic as unalike as the shows themselves: "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about war and sexual violence in the Congo, and "Everyday Rapture," Sherie Rene Scott's bubbly, autobiographical musical, which she wrote with Dick Scanlan.

Abortion comes only briefly to the fore in each play, a bit ambiguously in one, unequivocally in the other, breath-catchingly in both, and for very different reasons. Both moments left me blinking back tears. 

To say much more than that about them would be a disservice to audiences, who deserve to be surprised.

But audiences deserve, too, to have the fullness of human experience examined honestly onstage. A person doesn't have to be on a particular side of the abortion debate to recognize that abortion is a fact of life, and one that theater would do better to acknowledge.
May 4, 2009 7:56 PM | | Comments (3)


A Dallas theater company, Project X, did an entire play on the topic of abortion and its lack of presence in popular culture. It's called One in Three, by the writers Gretchen Dyer, Victoria Loe Hicks and Merritt Tierce. It wasn't a great drama but it was an interesting production, simulating an abortion clinic that the audience had to enter, complete with a line of protestors. Here's the radio and online story we did on it.

Jerome Weeks
Art & Seek
North Texas Public Broadcasting

Thank you for addressing this.
In the late 1980s I wrote a play set in a Boston abortion clinic "Under Siege" by pro-life protestors, centering on the experience of the counselors. They were working for minimal pay in spite of bomb threats and stalkers. A friend who was a counselor asked me to write it: she pointed out, and I agreed, that an unplanned pregnancy is a central moment of self-definition for women, and that the silence and shame surrounding it relegates women to second class status as moral beings. In the play there are 5 counselors and 22 patients ranging in age from 14 to 40something, and their attitudes toward abortion cover a wide spectrum-- including quite a bit of gallows humor-- very little of which ever makes it onto stage or screen.
It's a pretty good play: it was picked (under the title "Choices") for the Sundance Lab in 1990, and the two workshop productions I did myself got good reviews-- audiences, mostly women, laughed and wept and thanked me for portraying experiences that they recognized from their own lives and their friends', but which they had never seen aired in public.
The play has one full production: in South Africa. Not only was no US producer interested: literary managers refused to even read it. "Too controversial!" I was disappointed, of course: but I consoled myself that some other writer, one with better connections and a good agent, would get these suppressed voices into the public dialogue. But no one has! In twenty years.

Thanks for this piece. I just did a panel on abortion and popular culture at a conference and the results of my research is that pop culture particularly films is terrified of the issue. Part of it is the need to remain balanced and part of it is that most films are written by men. When you look at TV shows that are written by women for example the Private Practice episode this year, abortion is handled differently. That;s why we need more women writers, producers and directors. People write from their experience and what they know. It's not rocket science.

I just posted my remarks from the conference here: http://womenandhollywood.com/2009/05/presentation-from-panel-on-abortion-in-popular-culture/

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