Raising the Banner of Choice Through the Arts

Cindy Cooper

Artistic investigations of reproductive rights open new doors, too rarely explored in the battle over policy.

Driving along one of the roads that cuts through rural Kansas with the cast of Words of Choice, our minivan passed a billboard that was unmistakably anti-abortion — as common as fences along stretches of the "heartland." This one had a fetus floating in midair, as if a womb and a woman were irrelevant accessories. One of the actors caught sight of it. "Where's our voice?" she asked. "You're it," I responded.

I remember that moment as Words of Choice releases a DVD of our theatrical performance. We're launching the Words of Choice DVD in New York on October 19. As the election season goes into full swing, I hope that Words of Choice on DVD will raise the banner of reproductive justice and open new conversations about what freedom means to the real lives of women — and men — across the nation.

Since Words of Choice is neither a lecture nor a political speech, I've found that people are able to hear and respond in ways that they might not otherwise. The play is a collection of stories — funny, poignant and serious — by a dozen writers and covering a panorama of experiences with contraception, abortion, pregnancy, the Religious Right and activism. In one selection, two women comically list fourteen years of sin at confession. In another, a pregnant teen tries to remember the phone number of a one-night stand. A selection by Angela Bonavoglia from "The Choices We Made" describes a father's feelings after his daughter is raped. Emily Lyons relates the dozens of surgeries she needed after she was bombed at a clinic where she worked in Alabama and explains why she continues to speak out for women's right to make their own reproductive decisions. (Angela and Emily will join in us in a post-show discussion on October 19.)

In Kansas, where we filmed Words of Choice, and in the approximately 20 states and 45 cities we've visited, Words of Choice has encountered incredible pro-choice activists. The student organizer from the NOW chapter at Kansas State University packed an auditorium and scored a favorable editorial in the ultra-conservative student newspaper. The KSU Collegian wrote: "While the play ‘Words of Choice' does promote a decidedly pro-choice message, the forum after the play presents a golden opportunity for proactive dialogue about one of the most divisive issues in our nation."

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But local activists often toil with rare affirmation and much antagonism. At one Kansas college where we performed, someone anonymously posted a grainy fetus picture on the door of the auditorium. The college followed up with no investigation or inquiry, to be sure — this is accepted as normal behavior. In Wichita, activists would wake up in the morning to find their cars defaced and damaged; police were indifferent. Much of women's real experience is censored, whether in sex ed or in Hollywood movies like "Knocked Up" or the new documentary "Lake of Fire."

Other people are sadly misinformed. A Kansas campus minister, supposedly pro-choice, said in a post-show discussion that he was surprised to hear the story of a woman with a severe fetal anomaly who needed an intact d & e abortion ("partial-birth abortion") and that he had never thought about a woman who might need this healthcare.

As the director of communications of a national pro-choice organization, I sat through many "messaging" meetings. We saw polls and reviewed phrases tested by high-powered consultants. But so many times, I had the sense that we were talking to people sitting in rarefied air at the top of the pyramid and not tending to those struggling — or strolling — on the glade. Stories, opportunities to engage people, chances for people to hear pro-freedom voices and consider for themselves where they fit, were missing.

At the time we were in Kansas, then-Attorney General Phill Kline was conducting a vicious assault on the privacy in healthcare, asserting that any teen sexual activity constituted rape and demanding the records of women from clinics. As a teenager in Ohio, I remember going to the family doctor, worried that I might be pregnant. He did some tests, and to my relief, said I wasn't pregnant. I paid, using money I earned waitressing. After I left, the doctor called my parents — something neither safe nor comfortable for me; the sense of betrayal never left. Spurred on by my own experiences with breaches of medical privacy, I thought people in Kansas should hear what was happening in their state, even though it got little local coverage. A state legislator thanked me, but said that she could never speak out publicly.

One woman emailed me later. "Words of Choice was truly a blessing," she said. "It motivated me to keep organizing in my community, made me realize that there are people in other parts of the country who haven't forgotten that there are grassroots organizers in the Midwest."

For these young women, and for all of the organizers trying to make a difference in their communities, the Words of Choice DVD is a tool. Producer Linda ("Sam") Haskins of TakeTen Productions added photography from Dorothy Fadiman, Lisa Link, Bettye Lane and Women's eNews. Interviews of pro-choice activists are included. Suzanne Grossman, a multi-talented activist with a master's in women's and gender studies, created a series of discussion exercises.

Since women, young and mature, will continue to need reproductive health care no matter who is in office, we must find more ways to speak to them. We know that what happens in Kansas and South Dakota and Ohio matters to the real lives of women and to the future of reproductive justice and liberty.

Artistic investigations of reproductive rights open new doors, too rarely explored in the battle over policy. We need to reach for the treetops, but also to water the grass and roots. To that end, more creativity is in demand.

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