Combating Abortion Stigma, One Show At A Time

Never underestimate the power of personal stories

Growing up in a fairly liberal, middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, sex education was always part of my life, both at school and at home. I was never confused about how babies are made. I’ve always had access to various forms of birth control and have been with partners who were knowledgeable about protection. I’ve been privileged to never have to think about what I would actually do if I had an unplanned pregnancy.

That is, I never thought about these things until I started working on Remarkably Normal, a new interview-based play that covers a large spectrum of true abortion stories, from the experiences of nurse practitioners to mothers to a young, anti-abortion protestor and beyond. This groundbreaking play, which I assistant directed, has toured the country over the past few months. Some of its stories are liberating, some are heartbreaking, but they’re all rooted in the human experience, sidestepping political babble to present abortion as just another experience in someone’s life.

As an artist and activist who has protested on the streets of New York, called senators/congressmen/representatives for all sorts of reforms, and confronted street harassers outright, I jumped at the chance to work on this play. I’m definitely not afraid to use my voice to advocate for my beliefs, but when the time came to tell my family and friends what the show was about, I was astonished to find myself saying "abortion" in a voice no louder than a whisper, if I said it at all. Speaking so casually about abortion felt weird, but I felt even weirder for feeling weird at all. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, either: Early in the rehearsal process, we spent time getting the whole cast and crew comfortable using the word "abortion."

This hesitance and embarrassment is exactly what Remarkably Normal targets. There’s still such a massive stigma around discussing the experience of abortion, even for people who are pro-choice, and there’s even more societal pressure to feel guilty or apologetic for actually having had one. I realized that whispering or avoiding the word altogether only added to this stigma, so I challenged myself to speak about this work and this topic loudly and proudly, and to shout "ABORTION!" at least once a day to combat the awkwardness.

Unsurprisingly, being vocal about abortion rights can garner a lot of unwanted attention. One of the cast and crew’s major concerns was the possibility that protestors would gather outside our theaters each night, or, worse, come right in and disrupt the show. Thankfully, we only encountered a few internet trolls who tried (and failed) to take over our hashtag, but we’ve had security at every show, just in case.

Thankfully, our audiences have been full of supporters from Advocates for Youth (the producers of Remarkably Normal) and their partner organizations. But even though we've had support, we still recognize how crucial it is to be vocal. In fact, the most common thing people tell us during our nightly post-show discussions is how powerful it is to hear people’s real stories told onstage. I almost wish there were a few anti-choice people in our audiences, so they could hear our words, too. It’s easy to argue about policy or generalized, abstract beliefs, but it's much harder to combat the real circumstances of someone’s personal abortion story — especially when so many people's stories involve undeniable hardships.

I confronted some of these challenging circumstances firsthand while traveling the country over the last eight weeks. In particular, the lack of resources in some areas was especially eye-opening. For example, one Sunday we were traveling from Miami to Austin with a short layover in Atlanta. We ended up missing our connection to Austin, which created a flurry of switched flights, lost baggage, and car hunting that resulted in an almost 13-hour travel day. During our eventual drive to Texas, I couldn’t help but think about how many people drive even longer distances and overcome even more challenging circumstances not just to make it to a performance, but to take care of their health and basic needs by getting to clinics that provide abortions. What happens when their flights are delayed or their cars break down? What if they can’t afford to overcome these obstacles? Timing can be everything for people with limited resources who are seeking abortions. Isn’t forcing someone to travel for hours placing an undue burden on them, making abortion access all but out of reach for many?

It seems that in light of years of state-level abortion bans that enforced just such "undue burdens," we’re finally taking a step in the right direction. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt struck down one such restrictive law in Texas, which had forced about half of the state’s abortion clinics to close. But millions of people across the country still face extreme restrictions that prevent them from having easy access to abortion care. While I have been privileged to live in a place where I could always access a provider without being forced to travel for hours, stay in a hotel, or endure unnecessary counseling and waiting periods, so many people who need abortions don’t have that comfort. Instead they have fear, loneliness, and sometimes insurmountable expenses and restrictions.

Given this reality, I hope Remarkably Normal has encouraged audiences to reflect on real people’s real experiences with abortion care — not just the combative politicized conversations that often surround it. The tour is over, but I still don’t have a definitive answer about what I’d do if I had an unplanned pregnancy. I don’t think anyone can really know that answer until they’re faced with the decision in the moment. What I do know is that it’s my decision, and if anyone ever tries to argue with me, I’m going to quote this line from Remarkably Normal:

It is my basic human right to control, plan, and choose the size of my family. ... I don’t feel like that’s self-indulgence. That’s self-preservation.

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