Abortion can be hard to discuss — between family members; between ostensibly pro-choice allies in the Democratic party; among friends. But there is one place where abortion is discussed in a lively, engaging and dynamic way, where the voice of the lives of ordinary people, not wonks, are heard. And that’s following a performance of Words of Choice, a play by my friend Cynthia Cooper.
Words of Choice is about to go on the road — in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas:  St.Louis (Sept 14); Webster University (Sept 15); Lawrence KS (Sept 16); Manhattan, KS (Sept 19); Wichita, KS (Sept 20); Tulsa, OK (Sept 21); Washington University, St. Louis (Sept. 23).  

“I didn’t set out to measure the health of Roe v. Wade when I toured my play Words of Choice from New York to 10 states in the past year,”  Cooper wrote earlier this year for Women’s eNews. “But traveling to Missouri and Florida, Virginia and Minnesota, I keep feeling the temperature: signs of liveliness and weaknesses in ways I didn’t imagine.

At a church in suburban St. Louis, a young woman in a hip pink poncho offers me one clear insight when she strides up to the front of the community room after the “Words of Choice” performance. The play weaves together a dozen diverse writings about true-to-life experiences, comic and serious, with contraception, childbirth and abortion; my role is guiding the post-play discussion.

“Can you come to my college in Kansas?” presses the young woman. “This made me realize that I’m pro-choice and I want my friends to see it.” she says.

Another woman, whom I soon learn is her mother, steps forward. “Just a minute,” the 40ish woman interjects. “You grew up in a pro-choice household.”

“But we never talked about it,” the student says in a tone of exasperation best known to mothers and daughters.

“I told you about your grandmother’s illegal abortion, didn’t I?” the mother continues.

The daughter’s unblinking stare indicates otherwise. Within moments, we hear the decades-old story of a frightened Midwestern girl willing to gamble on outlaws and dangerous conditions to procure an abortion in the time period before the U.S. Supreme Court said, on January 22, 1973, that the government cannot criminalize abortion in all circumstances–the decision known simply as Roe to many…..

The experience of Roe in the lives of ordinary people is far from the world where policy analysts describe Roe’s wrinkles and sagging losses to hundreds of state anti-choice laws, or explain that one or two anti-choice replacements on the Supreme Court could make Roe into an historical artifact. More than one newswriter has confessed to being tired of the whole saga.

But tell that to the woman from Southside Chicago who approaches after a performance. She has never heard of Roe before. “I intend to do some research,” she says.

Roe is the pulsating heart of America’s right to privacy. If it is eliminated, many rights are in peril: right to contraception, in vitro fertilization, medical privacy, sexual freedom, gay and lesbian rights, end-of-life medical options, and, of course, abortion. Roe articulates the right to be free from government restriction in all manner of personal decision-making–essential individual rights in a free society.”

The play, which weaves together comic and serious stories by 15 writers, Angela Bonavoglia, Kathy Najimy, Emily Lyons, Michael Quinn, Emilie Townes, Alix Olson, Judith Arcana, Sherica White, Kathleen Tolan, and Justice Harry Blackmun, has been produced in over two dozen cities and states.

The true-to-life stories in Words of Choice touch upon hot-button topics such as emergency contraception, sexual assault, unintended pregnancy, abstinence education, and safe and legal abortion.

“It is funny, moving, informative, entertaining, and an evening of theatre like no other,” says Joan Lipkin, director.  

Words of Choice is touring three ‘red states’ in a time period in which the right of privacy is under attack,” according to the tour press release.  “The state attorney general of Kansas has subpoenaed the records of women from two abortion clinics, and most recently, he sued the state to stop payment for the abortions of survivors of rape.  The governor of Missouri is spending $100,000 in an “emergency” special session to pass anti-abortion legislation.  The U.S. Senator from Oklahoma decries the use of condoms for birth control or safe sex.”

Cooper has blogged about Missouri Gov. Blunt’s draconian legislation at Talk to Action (the temporary site of what will launch as a national, interactive site in a few weeks. Cooper will be a front page writer.)  

“I want to break open the conversation on reproductive rights,” Cooper says. “The right to privacy belongs to all of us. It can’t be left to politicians trying to score points.”

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