How abortion became a key talking point at the Edinburgh festival

As US states clamp down on abortion, the fight for women’s reproductive rights is coming to this year’s Fringe, writes David Pollock

“I want people to think about women’s autonomy,” says Arlene Hutton simply of her new play Blood of the Lamb, which is coming to the Fringe this year. “I’ll quote Gloria Steinem quoting Florence Kennedy: ‘If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.’ I want people to think about the importance of dialogue, of discussion, and of kindness and love.”

Blood of the Lamb is, says Hutton, “about the bureaucratic nightmare of a post-Roe America, imagining what could happen when new laws are taken to an extreme.” It’s about a pregnant woman whose transcontinental flight is diverted to Dallas. When she suffers a miscarriage, she isn’t allowed to leave the state until she has given birth. Hutton started writing the play before the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision of 24 June 2022, which overturned the ‘Roe Vs Wade’ legal ruling of 1973 that access to abortion is a constitutional right.

“I wrote what became the first ten pages in a fit of rage, picturing a future where women’s rights to choice were taken away,” says Hutton, who lives in New York but is originally from Florida. “I never thought it would actually happen, (but) when a draft of the upcoming decision by the Court’s majority was leaked on 2 May 2022, I knew I had to write the play.”

Lilly Burton in her show All Aboard! At Termination StationLilly Burton in her show All Aboard! At Termination Station
Lilly Burton in her show All Aboard! At Termination Station

Last year’s ruling has inspired many shows by female artists at the Fringe this year. In Edinburgh-based student company Viewpoint’s play Jane/Norma, the original story of Roe vs Wade is centred, through the life of plaintiff ‘Jane Roe’ – aka Texan Norma McCorvey, who campaigned for her own abortion rights but was later active in the Evangelical anti-abortion movement.

“Jane/Norma features a number of people from both sides, who all claim to have known Norma and what she believed in,” says playwright Kiera Bell. “Through their testimony we learn she was used and misrepresented by both sides, and denied a voice and the ability to make her own choices. With abortion now being fully banned in 14 states, with partial bans in several others, woman are being denied choices every day, just like Norma was.”

Other stories are more deeply personal, like London-based writer and performer Lilly Burton’s All Aboard! at Termination Station. “It’s an all-singing, all-dancing comedy cabaret theatre show about my personal experience of multiple abortions,” she says. “Why can’t I laugh about my experiences? I wanted to make a show that retold an account of abortion where there was no victim, no Mary and Madonna complex, but which was real, honest and fun.

“Access to reproductive health care and bodily autonomy is being threatened on a global scale,” continues Burton, an Abortion Rights UK executive committee member. “The week Roe v Wade was overturned was the same week I had my abortion last year, and the paralleling was frankly disturbing. My show is not just theatre, it's become my creative activism, my campaign to normalise and destigmatise abortion in such a dangerous time for reproductive rights.”

Arlene Hutton's abortion-themed play Blood of the Lamb explores 'the bureaucratic nightmare of a post-Roe America'.Arlene Hutton's abortion-themed play Blood of the Lamb explores 'the bureaucratic nightmare of a post-Roe America'.
Arlene Hutton's abortion-themed play Blood of the Lamb explores 'the bureaucratic nightmare of a post-Roe America'.

These conversations take place not just through theatre, but on stand-up comedy stages. Not My Finest Hour by Corby-raised, London-based Alexandra Haddow, and Catholic Guilt, by Philadelphia comedian Kelly McCaughan, both take the subject of abortion and right of access to it as a core theme.

“Without giving away too much, the show talks about my personal experience of having the privilege of living in a country where I didn't have to risk my life or my health to access family planning services,” says Haddow. “I worked for a magazine when the Irish referendum on abortion took place and felt very emotional when (Republic of) Irish women were finally given what every woman should have the right to. I can't believe I've seen these rights reversed, but we have to look forward, you can't make a river run backwards.What does Haddow want audiences to take from her show? “Hopefully a lot of joy, fun and laughter, and the sense that despite what people go through and the mistakes they make, we're all human and nobody should have to suffer at the hands of someone else for the sake of what's being disguised as politics, but really is control.”

Catholic Guilt, says McCaughan, is about her 12-year journey in the Catholic school system. “It’s a deeply personal comedy that explores the psychological effects of religious dogma,” she says. “I use elements of clown, bouffon and stand-up to give the audience a window into the world of Catholicism. With each new iteration I’m inspired to tell more truths, and now it’s at the point where I hold nothing back. Comedy gives people space to reframe their experiences and laugh at arbitrary religious teachings.”

The Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance is well-known, which feeds into McCaughan’s material. “There is a specific moment in the show where I address abortion as a mortal sin, which equates to murder in the eyes of the Catholic Church,” she says. “This mentality led to the political movement against Roe v. Wade, and my show illustrates how Catholic teachings can be used as weapons to control people’s bodies.

“I want to empower people, particularly women, to dismantle their shame and guilt through the power of comedy. I’ve aimed to create a very relatable show in a fun environment where audiences can explore their experiences, laugh together and possibly heal from their own trauma.”

Californian performer Joyful Raven, meanwhile, describes her show Breed or Bust as “a subversive and hilarious romp through my treacherous breeding decisions. The first kernel of it came to me a few years ago at a dinner party of all women. Everyone was swapping pregnancy and birthing stories, and I found myself uncharacteristically quiet, despite the fact I had a lot to say. My own pregnancy had ended in an abortion, and even in the liberal, left-leaning part of America where I live, I still felt like I couldn’t talk about my abortions openly in mixed company. I was still supposed to be at least a little bit ashamed.”

Her next point echoes that of Arlene Hutton, Gloria Steinem, et al. “I open with a joke offering the men in the audience the opportunity to get a vasectomy in the back alley behind the theatre after the show,” she says. “It highlights the fact that when we criminalise abortion we are criminalising basic health care, and it asks the question, ‘what if male bodies were being forced to put themselves in a risky medical situation in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies?’

“Listen, I‘m the first to tell you that abortion is not something to be taken lightly, that it can have a lasting effect on our bodies and our psyches and can haunt us for a lifetime. In many ways, Breed or Bust is about reckoning with my own ‘haunting’ – but I firmly believe it should still be my choice to make. I wouldn’t have been able to be the person I am today, had I not had the freedom to make that choice.”

Blood of the Lamb, Assembly Rooms, 3-27 August; Jane/Norma, the Space on the Mile, 5-25 August (odd days only); All Aboard! At Termination Station, Pleasance Courtyard, 2-28 August; Alexandra Haddow: Not My Finest Hour, Pleasance Courtyard, 2-25 August; Kelly McCaughan: Catholic Guilt, Underbelly Bristo Square, 2-27 August; Breed or Bust, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, 2-27 August.

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