“My first abortion was in 1966,” began Tony Award-winning actress L. Scott Caldwell in front of a packed house at a National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) event Jan. 22 commemorating the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Caldwell was performing someone else’s story, the heart-wrenching narrative of a woman who got a black-market abortion in Los Angeles without anesthetic.
The evening at NCJW/LA on Fairfax Avenue, dubbed “Stories From the Frontline,” was filled with narratives about women. Some involved a speaker’s college dorm mate, an abuelita (grandmother) or a deeply personal confession. With theater lights dimmed, the intimate ambience recalled that of “The Vagina Monologues,” a production by Eve Ensler.
Other actors invited to convey these stories included Amy Brenneman, Michael Cory Davis, Damon Gupton and Elizabeth Triplett. Pro-choice activist Lenzi Sheible, president and founder of Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit that pays travel expenses for low-income Texans seeking abortions, participated as well.
Around 250 people attended the event, including pro-choice activists sporting pins with slogans such as “Abortion on demand and without apology” and “It’s the Supreme Court, stupid!”
“It’s great to see a room that’s filled wall to wall with people,” marveled Ruth Zeitzew, NCJW/LA’s vice president, as she introduced the night’s emcee, human-rights advocate Rosalind Helfand, at the start of the evening.
Before the storytelling portion began, Joyce Schorr, founder of Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, and social justice attorney Sandra Fluke spoke about the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion and the legislation that has since tried to chip away at it. The 1973 decision, which was brought on behalf of Norma McCorvy (“Jane Roe”), is still treading water and struggling to prove itself, as some continue to wage war on the issue and on women’s basic human rights in general, according to Schorr.
“Unfortunately, we’re losing that war,” she said.
Schorr shared the experience that ignited her activism on the issue. It happened when her college roommate started hemorrhaging after undergoing an illegal abortion in 1969. Luckily, their friend’s father was a doctor — going to the hospital was out of the question in their minds — and his house call ultimately “saved her life — but not so many woman wound up like she did,” Schorr said.
Fluke gave a rundown on current legislation dealing with reproductive rights and prefaced it with, “I wish, like President [Barack] Obama, I could tell you that our union is strong, and I wish I could give you all the opportunity to rise and clap after every sentence during my State of the Union because I can tell you’re that kind of crowd. But, unfortunately, that is not what I can say to you this evening.”
She went on to discuss a Republican-sponsored bill that would have banned all abortions taking place after 20 weeks, save for a few narrow exceptions, such as victims of sexual assault who reported their attack. Two female GOP leaders ended up withdrawing their co-sponsorship of the proposed legislation because of the limitations in the exception clause, and the White House released a Jan. 20 statement calling the bill “an assault on a woman’s right to choose.” The very next day, Republicans scrapped the bill and turned their attention to the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2015, which bans the use of federal money for abortions or for insurance plans that cover abortions.
The weekend of Jan. 23-25 saw numerous “March for Life” demonstrations across the nation — about 50,000 pro-life activists marched Jan. 24 in San Francisco — but, for one night, the issue was focused on the stories of individuals and the freedom to choose.
Gupton (“The Divide,” “Whiplash”) told the narrative of a grandchild recounting what happened to his abuelita, who endured two alleyway abortion procedures that included a bottle of Clorox and a metal hanger. Triplett, of Hulu’s “Battleground” series, told the story of a 16-year-old girl who was too young to buy the Plan B morning-after pill, ending on a note of suspense after the pharmacist handed the teen a pregnancy test. And Sheible told her own story about getting a Cuban client to Albuquerque, N.M., safely for an abortion.
Brenneman (“Judging Amy”) responded to Sheible’s story by saying, “I feel like I’m sitting next to Harriet Tubman.” She then went on to read the narrative of Jennifer Whalen, a mother who served a criminal sentence after ordering mifepristone pills online for her underage daughter without a doctor’s prescription in order to induce a miscarriage.
The final speaker of the night, Maya Paley, NCJW/LA’s director of legislative and community engagement, took the stage and opted, instead of reading her prewritten speech, to speak candidly to the audience.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my story,” Paley said. She went on to tell her experience about finding out she was pregnant while working as a human-rights researcher in Israel and eventually deciding to return to the United States to undergo an abortion. (Before leaving Israel, however, she had a miscarriage, she said). It’s a story, she announced, her mom hadn’t heard yet — “and she’s in the room.”
“I want to get to a point and say, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve had an abortion,’ and it’s OK for people to raise their hands,” Paley said.
And, at that moment, a sea of hands went up.