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The Edinburgh Festival of Abortion


IS abortion an appropriate subject for entertainment? Can it be fun, joyful, hilarious even? A number of performers at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which has mercifully just ended, certainly seemed to think so. There were no fewer than five shows which dealt with the subject, all characterised by a desire to ‘destigmatise’ abortion, defend ‘reproductive rights’ and liberate women from feelings of shame. 

A common inspiration seems to have been the US Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark Roe vs Wade decision, which enshrined abortion as a constitutional right. Playwright Arlene Hutton began writing her play Blood of the Lamb in a ‘fit of rage’ provoked by the then prospective ruling in May 2022. Her play features a woman whose unborn baby dies on a flight from California to New York; she finds herself diverted to Texas where she must stay until she has given birth. She is threatened, in the post Roe vs Wade dystopia, with a potential prosecution for abuse of a corpse.

Edinburgh-based student company Viewpoint focused a show on the life of Norma McCorvey (the Roe in Roe vs Wade), a Texan who campaigned for abortion rights then became an evangelical Christian and appeared to switch sides. Playwright Kiera Bell claims McCorvey has been misrepresented and used, ‘denied a voice and the right to make her own choices’.

Abortion featured heavily on the stand-up comedy stages too. Not My Finest Hour by Alexandra Haddow, a show about her romantic travails, and Catholic Guilt by Kelly McCaughan, about her 12 years of experience of the Catholic school system, both focused heavily on the topic. Joyful Raven described her show Breed or Bust as a ‘subversive and hilarious romp through my treacherous breeding decisions’. She describes abortion as ‘basic health care’. Lilly Burton, an Abortion Rights UK executive committee member, based her whole cabaret show, All Aboard at Termination Station, on her personal experiences of multiple abortions.

All these shows present abortion as part of the wider struggle for female emancipation and incontestably an issue for women alone. The unborn child is not afforded much consideration, and nor it seems are the fathers. As Joyful Raven puts it, ‘abortion can have a lasting effect on our bodies and our psyches and can haunt us for a lifetime’. McCaughan talks of how her show ‘illustrates how Catholic teachings can be used as weapons to control people’s bodies’. The ‘us’ and the ‘our’ and the ‘bodies’ all refer, of course, to women. Lilly Burton, without apparent irony, talks of her show retelling ‘an account of abortion where there was no victim’. No victim . . .

Another common feature is the belief that the performers are involved in a noble and urgent crusade against an increasingly powerful adversary. Bemoaning the Rowe vs Wade judgement, Kiera Bell observed that ‘woman are being denied choices every day’ while Haddow says she is glad to live in a country where she doesn’t ‘have to risk my life or my health to access family planning services’. Burton, who describes her work as ‘creative activism’, says ‘access to reproductive health care and bodily autonomy is being threatened on a global scale’.

Isn’t this somewhat overblown? The Rowe vs Wade decision didn’t ban abortion, it simply removed its constitutional protection. It is now left to individual states to make their own decisions. Currently 35 US states allow abortion at least until the detection of cardiac activity (six weeks) with six states imposing no term limits at all. Twenty-one states have codified abortion protection into either their laws or constitutions. It is up to the individual voters – and more women vote than men in the US – to elect representatives who would change these rules if they desired. Arlene Hutton employs ‘speculative fiction’ in her play to imagine Texan law being used to prosecute a woman carrying a dead body. While technically feasible, this has never happened. Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Nor is there much evidence of abortion access being restricted outside the US as a consequence of the Supreme Court ruling, aside perhaps from Hungary requiring a woman to listen to the heartbeat of her unborn child before deciding on a termination. Elsewhere the trend has been all the other way, especially in the UK. Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland, the last UK holdout, in 2020. None of the major parties has any policy to restrict abortion access, and in March this year Parliament voted to expand buffer zone legislation throughout England and Wales, making it illegal to protest, even silently, 150 metres from an abortion clinic. The number of abortions each year in the UK continues to grow: more than 214,000 terminations were performed in 2021. 

The unanimity of viewpoint of these Fringe shows has an almost Soviet feel, quite appropriate for the modern Edinburgh Festival as a whole. Striking also is the lack of criticism. It’s almost impossible to imagine a pro-life show, or even a joyful all-singing all-dancing celebration of childbirth, finding a venue at the festival now. Dissenting viewpoints (see Graham Linehan) are decidedly unwelcome. Perhaps the best joke at the festival was not a weak crack about a zookeeper and a cheetah, but its pretence of inclusivity and diversity (of viewpoint). 

The closest we got to an opposing perspective was a protest by the Scottish Family Party who, ten minutes into Burton’s show, held up graphic pictures of aborted babies. Richard Lucas, leader of the SFP, said it was their intention to prove that the performer couldn’t continue when confronted with the reality of what she was singing and joking about.

And she couldn’t. Burton stopped the show, told the protesters to ‘get the f*** out’ and called security. She was clearly not prepared to be challenged, and was outraged that someone would do so. She seems to have no understanding of how any reasonable person could oppose abortion on demand or find shows that make light of the ending of human life, even celebrate it, abhorrent.

‘Why can’t I laugh about my experiences?’ she asks. It was clearly intended as a rhetorical question.

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