Jaw Jaw Not Abortion War: Can We Debate Without Fear?

27/01/2017 11:19 GMT | Updated 28/01/2018 10:12 GMT

Abortion is going to be on everybody's lips this year if both advocates and opponents of abortion rights have anything to say about it. The UK Abortion Act was passed 50 years ago. Alongside the Family Planning Act also passed in 1967, it has transformed women's lives, making them full participants in the social, economic and political life of the country and has, as was the primary intention of the Act, saved women's lives.

The majority of people agree that abortion should be legal and safe. One in three women will have one, and of the other two a significant proportion will have faced the dilemma of an unintended pregnancy sometime during their fertile lives. Increasingly the ethical argument is being made that it is a moral duty for society to support and fund abortions, moral for doctors and nurses to provide them and can be an act of moral responsibility to choose to have one.

Yet the right to abortion is still contested - loudly. In America they call it the 'abortion wars' and this isn't just hyperbole. Anti-abortion protestors there are insistent, aggressive, sometimes violent, occasionally deadly. In 2015 three people were murdered at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado by a man who called himself 'pro-life'. The list of murders of abortion clinic staff and firebombings of abortion clinics is a grim read. In the UK, clinic protest has escalated and is the cause of calls for buffer zones to protect women and clinic staff.

This begs the question - is there a way in this 50th anniversary year to make this less of a battle and more of a conversation?

Lots of people are going to give it a go. A project at the Open University aims to find different ways to give voice to the personal experiences of young women who've had abortions. A student group Viva La Vulva, from University College London recently staged a play based on women's abortion stories. Other projects this year will try to capture the memories of women and health workers who remember the days before 1967 when contraception was hard to come by and abortion could land you in the jail or the morgue.

All these projects take on the remaining taboo of talking about abortion as a real life event, not just an abstract political debate. They aim to generate empathy, understanding and to challenge the stigma and isolation that women often experience around abortion.

But the debate continues. It is not resolved and may never be. There will always be a small group of people whose views will remain untouched by public opinion, human rights arguments, evidence, public health imperatives or day to day realities. For them opposing abortion is an act of faith. So, a question remains about whether it is possible to engage with their ideas and accept that they are not going away.

One theatre group in Liverpool thinks it is. From a passing comment in a restaurant, to a conversation in a car, to a debate amongst young actors, a play that does just that has been imagined, devised and will soon be performed in towns and cities all over England and in Northern Ireland - the only country in the UK without legal abortion where taking perfectly safe abortion medication can still land you in jail.

'I told my mum I was going on an RE Trip', written by Julia Samuels and performed by her 20 Stories High youth theatre company, eschews the more sympathetic 'voices of women who've had abortions' version of drama. Those voices are clearly heard in the play, but so are the voices of doctors who will and who won't provide abortions, abortion opponents, young men struggling with their role in this decision and young women who would never contemplate abortion. It distills the wide-ranging, complex, contradictory and ultimately irreconcilable elements of the abortion debate into an intense, animated pageant of perspectives.

The immediacy of verbatim theatre, not just the stories, but the actual words spoken in the actual voices of real people is challenging, energising - sometimes uncomfortable. It asks the audience to really listen; to actually hear a range of deeply held beliefs; to engage with a difficult reality - that this debate might never be lost...or won.

This form of theatre is able to voice both sides of the debate with integrity. It encourages discussion, argument, and reflection. It doesn't presume to have an answer, but celebrates the debate in all its mess and complexity.

When women seeking abortion are targeted outside clinics, when clinic escorts are assaulted, when anti-abortion protestors' tactics are to intimidate and maximise distress, it feels a bit too much like war. For those of us who want to engage in this debate but prefer 'jaw jaw to war war', verbatim theatre like 'I told my mum....' is a brilliant place to start.