In late February, I had a chance to sit down with playwright Lisa Loomer (“The Waiting Room,” “Girl Interrupted”) to discuss her play “Roe,” now at Berkeley Rep. My own experience with the political and practical history of winning and defending abortion rights and delivery of abortion services, over the past 47 years, piqued my interest in Loomer and her work. The Supreme Court heard Roe v Wade on October 11, 1972. At the time, I was working as a Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) staff member in Washington, D.C. WONAAC chapters across the country grew out of the burgeoning women’s rights movement of the 1970s. Impelled by the civil rights and anti-war movements, women broke out of their political and social isolation, meeting together in consciousness raising groups to identify the source of their oppression. Eventually, this new movement, led by women, articulated a series of demands, and a politically conscious layer decided to turn outward rather than inward, to win the unrestricted right to choose abortion. They gathered in large conferences, and charted a campaign. Out of this activism came WONAAC—a mass organization to fight for abortion rights.
After several modest national and local demonstrations, and mobilizations to picket and pack state legislative hearings on a variety of pro-choice bills, the coalition NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League), comprising professional organizations with pro-abortion rights agendas, succeeded in streamlining the campaign’s focus to the Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which then assumed the burden of arguments for and against legalized abortion. The case found its justification within the narrow parameters of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, where language about privacy and property implicated but did not outright state the case for women having the right to choose.
Had the courts been in the hands of working people, a decision favoring Roe v Wade’s plaintiff, Norma McCorvey, the surrogate for Roe, could have altered the relationship of forces decisively in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Instead, the decision that came down on January 22, 1973, invited the imposition and codification of encroachments on that right in subsequent years and via a series of both frontal and oblique attacks.
In practical terms, the abortion clinic became the battleground for defending what remained of those rights, the nexus of all the contradictions inherent in the Supreme Court decision itself. The 1973 decision revealed an underbelly that connected women to a multi-strand umbilical cord of a desiccating health care system, as well as retrograde social forces whose special interests wielded a time-honored weapon against women: the sanctity of family values. Could Roe v Wade stand up to the legacy of a legal system which for centuries regarded women and children as the property and chattel of men, where working class women were manipulated as candidates for charity or calumny, or both?
In 1985, I found myself in Charleston, West Virginia, jobless. In 1971, I had testified, along with others, at the longest hearing in the history of the Massachusetts legislature, on an abortion rights bill. In 1972, I sat in on the Supreme Court Roe v Wade hearing, following a WONAAC and NARAL picket line in front of the court on the morning of the hearing. So, when I applied for a job as Secretary to the Director of the Charleston Women’s Health Center, I was hired. The clinic was the brainchild of a small but imposing layer of socialite and upper-middle-class Charleston feminists. That layer of the clinic’s administrative staff was paid well, but the part-time workers who “worked in the back,” meaning that they assisted the doctors, and cleaned up after procedures, ensuring correct disposal of the fetal remains and sterilization of instruments, were paid just enough to cover baby-sitting and gas expenses to get to work from coal mining “hollers” just outside Charleston. The workers’ resentments weren’t unlike Norma McCorvey’s, as Loomer presents them in “Roe.” The clinic in Charleston, when it wasn’t being firebombed or picketed, was the step-child of the West Virginia health care establishment, and the political football of state legislature pro- and anti-choice contenders. The clinic depicted in “Roe” is no different. I was curious to learn from Loomer how she saw what she refers to as the “cultural divide” from the standpoint of class differences within the framework of the campaign to win and defend the right to choose.
“When it was suggested to me, I thought, ’I don’t want to do a court case,’” Loomer told me. “My plays have humor and naturalism,’ so I didn’t invent anything in the court case. I used the courtroom’s real voices. What is history is what is truth on stage.” For Loomer, the dramatic counterpoints come directly from Roe’s two protagonists, Sarah Weddington, the fresh-out-of-law-school attorney who represented “Roe,” and Norma McCorvey, the actual woman in need of an abortion, whose name Roe represented. “Lawyer and plaintiff are allies in the beginning, but after the decision, they take divergent roads. The story became for me, especially McCorvey’s subsequent defection to the anti-choice side, a way of talking about the cultural divide today.” Loomer says that while taking the play on tour, she would hear audible gasps from the audience during Act II, when McCorvey undergoes a conversion to Christian fundamentalism, and renounces her pro-choice views. She said that to create the character she had to discover what moved her. “What did she sacrifice that ended up costing her identification with the right to choose?”
Loomer sees McCorvey as a woman “with a hole in her heart.” She thinks that McCorvey believed that being a celebrity might fill that hole, and that celebrity filled it to some degree because she needed to align with a cause, something greater than her, that would satisfy a need for recognition. “It was not enough to gain it from one side. She sought it from opposing sides, and was frustrated because she didn’t feel recognized by feminists and liberals, and so was open and vulnerable to opportunistic religious conversion.” Loomer points out that because a play looks into psychological wounds, if the audience looks back at what happens in Act I, especially how McCorvey’s daughter is taken from her and the ways in which her life was depreciated by her mother’s constant criticism,” the end game of McCorvey’s radical switchback is logical. According to Loomer, McCorvey saw it in class terms. “She was brash, uneducated, not intelligent enough” for the fast-track women who had charge of her life once she became a plaintiff I ask her whether she thinks of McCorvey as one of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”? Loomer readily assents: “She becomes someone who, if we can understand her, we can understand others in our time. If we understand Sarah Weddington, we can understand what they feel when they see everything they hold sacred go up for grabs.” Loomer locates the problem in “women public figures denied their respect, seen as cold, aloof, unreachable, unlikeable, and stigmatized, because of their personal lives, which shouldn’t be, but is fodder when the spotlight is on them”. Rather than a single set of circumstances, interpreted from different points of view based on class outlook, Loomer maintains that each of her characters is wedded to her own “truth” based on the divisions imposed by social class. “You have to stick with your own idea of the truth. It’s complicated, and I have to allow all my characters their truth, their complexity and pain,” she insists.
What impediments are posed by the legal framework? Justice Harry Blackmun’s comments focused on the viability of the fetus in limiting the window for abortion. Justice Ruth Ginsburg (who was not sitting on the court at the time of the decision) today takes issue with the jurisprudence in Blackmun’s argumentation. “Still,” Loomer says, “it’s the case we got, and so it is being whittled away. It’s what we have and we’re losing it piecemeal. Sarah Weddington says time and again that no one is advocating abortion; we’re advocating a right to choose. The play looks at the subject of choice beyond abortion, at such allied questions as: What does your religion say? Who can be your partner? What are the ramifications for women hoping to find balance in their lives that goes beyond their sex and sexuality?”
In the 1970s, McCorvey and other working class women were still referred to as “girls.” They became the instruments for women from the ruling class, referred to as “ladies,” to carry out campaigns for women’s rights. How do the dramatic elements of class conflict assert themselves in Roe?
Loomer says that she has never encountered so many limitations in subject matter while working on a play. “Everyone had a very strong opinion, a sense of ownership. I felt pressure from both sides, who’s story is this? What does the right to choose mean in the arc of a person’s life when we make terrible decisions all the time?” She found that more than ever before, she had to do less talking and more listening. “Is this or that important to put into the play? and yes, in many cases it was important. The play has a lot of characters to account for those things, and help us look at the big picture. We ended up with not enough stage time to give more attention to the Christian Right, for example, and how and when they decided to adopt Roe v Wade as their issue. I had to regularly check my own hearing: How does the language resonate? When Sarah Weddington says in defense of her high-handedness, ‘We give you choice so you can choose,’ is it a strong enough cry [to vindicate the arrogating of the issue by high-toned lawyers in private property-biased courts]. Does it satisfy?”
The language the two characters use, their dress, the music in their lives, all evoke opposing class cultures. Weddington is the daughter of a minister. McCorvey is from the very poorest layer of the working class. She was the one working “in the back” of an abortion clinic.
Because the Roe v Wade decision devolved on viability of the fetus, unresolved questions were left to the disposition of doctors, lawyers, and theologians, rather than women. They took advantage of openings to attack the decision via parental consent legislation, restrictions driven by Medicaid payment or on what military health plans could cover and waiting period requirements. Loomer sees “Roe” as an opportunity to jailbreak the right to choose out of its strictly legal framework. It’s in part a battle cry to, in Loomer’s words, “make our voices heard over the noise of the opponents, respond to every piece of legislation that threatens to whittle away more of the existing decision, to be in the streets, and be vigilant.”