Women’s Rights Are Center Stage in One Kentucky Community

A local theater group tackles stigma and prompts conversations in a state where abortion is steadily under attack.
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“We want to talk to you about it because it’s not shameful, and the more that we try to sweep it under the rug, the more we have dangerous legislation being passed to try and limit our access.”

Photo by Tommaso Tuzj/Getty Images

One night in a bar in Lexington, Kentucky, on a stage usually held by local bands playing raucous music to often-inebriated crowds, a different kind of performance is under way. The room is silent as the performers, wearing all black with small red accents, silently walk on stage. They take seats and begin to tell their stories.

This is one of a series of performances of the The Abortion Monologues, a community play in which the performers tell stories about their personal experiences with abortion.

Each story runs the gamut of abortion experiences, and the performers’ experiences on stage range from total beginners to people who could bare their most personal stories to the barista at their local coffee shop. The women (and occasional man) on stage are brave enough to tell their own story, but in other cases an actor plays the role of someone who wants to remain anonymous.

The performance is intense, but it’s not sad.

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“[Our abortion experiences are] a part of our narrative, and not one that we sit around and cry about,” says Stacie Sexton, the artistic director and creator of the show. “We don’t grieve for something that we lost, we celebrate the fact that we lived our lives the way that we wanted to, and that we were able to do that and make that choice for ourselves.”

The Abortion Monologues is Sexton’s brainchild, similar in style to the Broadway play The Vagina Monologues. She came up with the idea for the community theater project in 2016, as she watched Kentucky’s political climate grow “deathly and grave,” she says. A new run of the show is scheduled to begin in September. Other productions shed light on the personal stories of abortions, including a 2009 published play with the same name. This is the first time this has happened in Kentucky, a state whose government is actively hostile to legal abortions.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has made severely restricted abortion access in Kentucky a goal since he was elected in 2015. In 2016, Lexington’s abortion clinic—one of only two in the state at the time—was shut because of political pressure and recently enacted laws that limited access to the procedure.

After Republicans took control of the legislature in November of that year, a wave of anti-abortion legislation began coming out. There were already 15 separate restrictions on abortion enacted into state law, but in 2016 a new restriction passed, and a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy became law in 2017 alongside six other restrictions on the procedure. Then in 2018, a ban on abortions after the 11th week of pregnancy—one of the most severe restrictions in the country—became law. Another restriction will take effect in 2019.

It wasn’t until Sexton met Kacy Johnson, now the production manager for the show, that the play took shape. Johnson and Sexton found a coterie of people willing to share their stories in their own words in front of a live audience. The stories are recorded, then written down into script format so that each performance remains consistent.

“It’s one thing to tell your story to one of our core volunteers, it’s another to stand in front of a group of people and tell that same story for multiple nights,” Johnson says.

The show aims to break down the taboo against speaking openly about abortion.

Rehearsal helps. The show runs for about two hours, and the stories are interwoven with speakers from local women’s health organizations, such as the Kentucky Health Justice Network and Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, who talk about the mission of the play, which is to reduce the stigma about abortion as a way to empower and educate others.

“This project is needed to normalize abortion and show people that a legal, safe procedure is not the devil,” Sexton says. “We want to talk to you about it because it’s not shameful, and the more that we try to sweep it under the rug, the more we have dangerous legislation being passed to try and limit our access.”

“The fact that [opposition to abortion access] keeps devolving as rapidly as it does means that spaces of resistance, especially in this political climate, are critical to our survival,” Sexton says. “If we want to retain our rights, we have to talk about it. We have to find ways to normalize something that is our constitutional right.”

With the resignation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, advocates fear it is only a matter of time before the court, with a new appointment from President Trump, overturns the 1973 landmark abortion decision in Roe v. Wade.

“How we combat those stigmas is by standing up and saying, ‘Can you really look me in the face and tell me that the choice I made for my health, the well-being of myself and my family, and my future makes me a monster?’” Johnson says. “We do that by creating a safe space to tell those stories.”

One performer, a man who performed another man’s story in the show, says that the clear and present threats to legal abortion access at the state and federal level heightens the importance of the popular education that The Abortion Monologues provides. The performer wishes to remain anonymous because he fears his job would be in jeopardy if it was discovered he was participating in activities that promote increased abortion access.

“I feel like we accomplish what we intended: To help people understand and feel more realistically what the experience is like,” he says. “Very rarely do I see people discussing real experiences [of abortion] and what things mean to people’s real lives.”

The show aims to break down the taboo against speaking openly about abortion, so that people can have meaningful conversations about it. Johnson says the show means a lot of different things to the people who see it, but the one constant is that it gets people talking.

“We haven’t had a show where we haven’t spent the next few hours, days, even weeks, still talking to our audience about the importance of sharing those stories,” Johnson says. “It’s been encouraging and cathartic for so many people.”

Seeing the show is oftentimes a healing and affirming experience for those who witness it, Johnson says. Nearly 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research and policy organization. Based on that statistic, it’s highly likely that some of the play’s audience members have had first-hand experience with abortion. Hearing stories that might be very similar to their own can help those audience members feel less alone.

“To hear someone else say the words out loud and make it clear that, though the loudest voices on the topic are not in support of their decision, there’s another set of voices and they aren’t judging because they’ve been there, too,” Johnson says.

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.