ASHLAND – About halfway through the performance of “Roe,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s world premiere drama about the actual people involved in Roe v. Wade, one character marvels about how long the dispute has lasted.
It’s 1994, the character Sarah Weddington —who successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court as a newer-than-novice 26-year-old lawyer – tells a TV reporter, and somehow we’re still talking about it.
Off the stage, of course, it’s now 2016, and the argument isn’t over, or even at a lower decibel level. In the audience, in what may be the most pro-choice city in what may be the most pro-choice state, a crowd that seems somewhat younger than the typical OSF audience applauds speeches by abortion-rights supporting characters, and greets opposing characters with silent suspicion – a response having nothing to do with the quality of the acting. Across the continent, Merrick Garland is in his unprecedented sixth month as a Supreme Court nominee ignored by the U.S. Senate, mostly because of Roe v. Wade. Around the country, courts continue to deal with imaginative stratagems by state legislatures to nullify the Supreme Court’s decision without its being actually reversed.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, we have two tickets with four abortion positions. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton fully supports abortion rights, while running mate Tim Kaine’s position is that he’s personally opposed but won’t make the decision for other people – essentially, anti-abortion but pro-choice – the default position for many Democrats, especially Catholics, since Mario Cuomo.
This spring, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the GOP candidate for vice president, signed one of the nation’s most restrictive state abortion laws, banning abortions on the basis of race, sex or disability – with prosecution of doctors in violation – and requiring physicians to provide patients with the “remains” after an abortion. The law has since been blocked by a federal judge. Presidential nominee Donald Trump, who once said he was “very pro-choice,” this year suggested that prosecution should extend to women who have abortions – one of five stances on abortion The Washington Post counted him taking in three days.
So maybe there are more than four positions on abortion on the two tickets.
And when the Clinton campaign tries to rally skeptical Sanders enthusiasts by talking about the Supreme Court, or Trump supporters warn dubious Republicans about Clinton’s potential judicial nominations, neither side is referring to tax policy.
Forty-three years after Roe v. Wade, the issue seems to get into everything. Funding to defend against the Zika virus was blocked before Congress went on vacation, because Republicans insisted on including shots against Planned Parenthood and Democrats refused. Republicans such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have already declared that if the virus, causing microcephaly and reduced bran function in newborns, is diagnosed in pregnant women, abortion should not be considered an option.
The sympathies of “Roe” are clear, and so are those of much of its audience. “Roe” draws a different crowd of playgoers than, say, “Timon of Athens,” young women wearing belly shirts reading “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” or recalling friends’ abortions as they wait for the house lights to go down.
But the play refuses to make things easy for anybody. Its title “Roe” is not only shorthand for a historic Supreme Court decision, but also for the plaintiff “Jane Roe,” actually Norma McCorvey. She becomes first a symbol for abortion rights supporters and then for anti-abortion forces – publishing two books that remember the same events very differently. McCorvey as a character is set against Weddington, whose life also turns out differently than she expected, with her first case following her through her entire career. History and legal cases, the play reminds us, are about people, individuals who can find themselves tossed about by forces much larger than themselves.
The point is sharpened by a late-appearing character (actually, less a character than a dramatic device), who has faced the full obstacle course placed before abortion seekers in 2016 – traveling to a friendlier state, waiting period, anti-abortion demonstrators – and demands that Weddington tell her what to do.
Weddington, sounding less certain than you might expect from someone who has made history, says she can’t tell somebody else what to do; she can only say it needs to be her own choice.
At the play’s end, from opposite sides of the stage, Weddington, the abortion rights legal legend, and McCorvey, the newly anointed anti-abortion symbol, declare together, “Roe still stands” – but Weddington means the decision, and McCorvey means the person.
After 43 years, the abortion debate is still people using the same words but meaning different things – on or off the stage.
NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/21/16.