In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24th, 2022, discussions about the future of reproductive rights have become increasingly important. PerSIStence Theatre, a feminist non-profit theatre company based in St. John’s, added to the conversation by hosting a live performance of Jane Cawthorne’s Abortion Monologues in the city’s west end on July 2nd.
Originally premiered in Portland, Oregon in April 2009, Cawthorne announced on her website that she was offering it free of royalty payments to any reproductive rights organizations and equity-seeking groups who wanted to produce it. The work is a collection of twenty-three stories about abortion inspired by the experiences of Canadian women. It was followed by a panel-led discussion about reproductive rights and abortion access in Canada. Ticket proceeds went to the Athena Clinic’s Remote Access Travel fund which helps support abortion access for women in remote areas of the island.
Despite the heat on Saturday, people gathered at Bowring Park’s Cabot 500 Amphitheatre—clutching their umbrellas and reaching for any shade available—to watch 17 performers recite Cawthorne’s emotional, funny, and heartbreaking monologues about abortion. All the performers were members of the community who wanted to share stories of women who had abortions. These performers included: Jayne Batstone, Sadhana Bhandari, Nathalie Brunet, Vanessa Cardoso-Whelan, Patricia Cumby, Jenn Deon, Chelsea Hewitt, Jenna James, Chantelle Keen, Amanda Klein, Hanaa Mekawy, Sarah Power, Samita Rimal, Rolanda Ryan, Kate Steneker, Aedon Young, and Courtney Zwicker.
Before the performance began, a representative from PerSIStence Theatre highlighted the difficulty of the past week—and the growing fears about losing women’s hard-won rights. Dr. Margot Duley, feminist scholar and member of the board, spoke of the need to celebrate and affirm support for reproductive rights in Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada.
“We refuse to go back,” she stated. “We are here to reflect on what more needs to be done here in Canada, in terms of access and to put an iron-clad lock on reproductive freedom.”
The monologues highlight the first-hand experiences of Canadian women who have faced restricted access to abortion care and vast social disapproval. Duley emphasized that “some of that disapproval still exists.” The event was also held to express solidarity with women in the United States, as Duley exclaimed “the right-wing ain’t done yet.” Duley warned of the growing power of reactionary conservatism in the United States but also emphasizes that “there are warning signs here in Canada as well.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, abortion access is still highly restricted. There are only two places to receive an abortion here on the island: the Health Sciences Centre and the Athena Health Centre. Both are located in St. John’s, although the Athena Health Centre facilitates monthly satellite clinics to central Newfoundland and the west coast. For those from rural and northern communities who wish to have an abortion, it can be difficult and costly.
Local activists want to expand access to abortion care across Newfoundland and Labrador. But the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the United States has demonstrated the potential for abortion care to become even more restricted.
Duley commenced the performance of Cawthorne’s Abortion Monologues with a quote from William O. Douglas. The former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States issued a warning to the allies of the civil rights movement in the 1970s:
“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of the change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
As each performer took to the stage, they recited stories from the perspectives of women who had abortions. The monologues expressed a full range of experiences, reflecting the diversity of reasons women have for seeking abortions at every stage of life—from young love to divorce to retirement. The play went beyond framing abortion in terms of a women’s choice about her body by situating it in the larger context of relationships and family, through the exploration of break-ups, cheating, money, intimacy, sex, and children.
It also highlighted barriers to accessing birth control. For example, one monologue focused on the financial choice some parents must make between food for their children or condoms.
While there were moments of laughter and invitations to empathy for the characters’ issues, some moments were ugly and uncomfortable. One monologue, in particular, dealt with body dysmorphia and eating disorders. The character described being disgusted with the weight gain associated with pregnancy. While the character’s attitudes were distasteful, this monologue emphasized that the reasons for abortion are not something to which everyone needs to relate or even agree with. Ending a pregnancy is a personal choice. The character’s fatphobia, as unpleasant as it is, demonstrates that even those with abhorrent attitudes deserve access to safe abortion care.
The stories explored the life trials of immigration, the impacts of cultural differences, misogyny, sexual assault, rape, and suicidal ideation. A warning at the beginning of the show that offensive content and traumatic scenarios would be presented may have been appreciated by audience members. However, by summoning such challenging experiences and difficult emotions, the play highlights the multitudes of considerations that must be factored in when a woman chooses to have an abortion.
However, despite the ugly and uncomfortable moments, the monologues emphasized sex-positive attitudes to demonstrate how we must not shame women who choose to have abortions. Characters expressed their love of sex while also touching on self-esteem and enjoying sex—even in one’s old age. The emphasis on sex positivity at the end of the play reiterates that no one should feel ashamed to have sex and enjoy it, or to be able to safely manage its consequences. This is essential to the conversation about women’s rights and access to abortion care.
While occasionally uncomfortable, Jane Cawthorne’s Abortion Monologues serve as an important reminder to everyone that all across the world, abortions are sought by folks from all walks of life—and for a multitude of reasons. From traumatic encounters to benign accidents, unplanned and unwanted pregnancies happen. What happens next, however, is a matter of personal choice—a choice that is not up to any government or court to make.
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