Taking the Temperature of Choice on Road

By Cindy Cooper

Women’s eNews, January 21, 2005

On the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–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. 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.

Rarely Hear the Expected

Here, as at colleges, community centers, theaters and galleries, people are hungry to talk. But rarely do I hear the expected. People do not slot themselves into pollsters’ glib categories of ‘abortion should be legal under all circumstances’ or ‘abortion should be legal only in cases of rape.’ People don’t cogitate about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court or grind their teeth about the exact moment when life begins.

What they are eager to discuss is close to home. Sexual relations. Complicated lives of love and loss. People and circumstances that do not fit into check-off boxes on forms. One audience member in Virginia turns out to be the cashier at a college snack bar and while punching out our orders of chicken nuggets, describes, rapid-fire, an abusive marriage, an early abortion, a remarriage, children, grandchildren, a turn toward fundamentalist religion and her continued devotion to a woman’s right to make her own decisions about childbearing.

A parent worries about a “sex ed” class in which her daughter is informed that eating hot dogs will give boys “dirty thoughts.” An Israeli-born man who is helping his girlfriend in Florida raise two children wonders why so many burdens are placed on women.

The play seems to open people up. One story in “Words of Choice” is of a father describing his feelings after his daughter is raped. Another is of a teenager who constructs an extensive, if familiar, rationale about why a single sexual encounter should not have made her pregnant (“think of all the times I didn’t do it,” she says.)

“It is so much more complex than I thought,” says a Southeast Asian immigrant in the courtyard of a Minneapolis theater. “I never heard these stories. They’re not like what you hear on the news. They make me think. Especially having a teenager, they make me think.”

Experience of Ordinary People

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.

But this is not a topic peppered between discussions of the latest contestants on “American Idol.” Roe is living unseen, unheard, underground.

A Missouri student reports that her school refused to let her write a paper about abortion. A Planned Parenthood employee in Minnesota says that she never mentions where she works, especially before getting a haircut (bad sentiment might turn into bad hair.) A college freshman in Wisconsin would consider an abortion. But, she says, she would never tell anyone about it.

Anti-choice protesters have not won the day or the majority, but they have managed to close off intelligent discourse.

More Safe Spaces to Talk

We need many more safe spaces for strangers and neighbors and even mothers and daughters to talk. Spoken word cafes. Church basements. Dormitories where five friends sit down and discuss; Tupperware-style house parties. Art galleries, bookstores, after-hours groups at doctors’ offices.

And our leaders need to sit in. Away from polls and focus groups and message-makers, they need to open new conversations with the people who need Roe, even if they don’t know about it. No one owns the subject of reproductive freedom, and we are all immigrants to this strange new landscape where no one talks.

I understand from the young woman in the pink poncho that the grassroots might save Roe, but none of us can assume that the grass has been watered. We urgently need to learn from one another. Let the dialogues begin.