MOM BABY GOD: Going Undercover in the Anti-Choice Movement

8429292177_a02102a8d1_zImagine heading out for a night of theater, only to end up chanting along with the rest of the audience: “We are the pro-life generation!” If you’re lucky enough to catch a performance of the currently touring MOM BABY GOD, you just might find yourself unexpectedly wrapped up in a “pro-life” slumber party, meeting all sorts of characters in this one-woman play.

Actor, playwright and reproductive-rights activist Madeline Burrows spent more than one year immersed in the anti-abortion movement, intent on learning about its supporters and what fuels them. Through research, interviews and attending pro-life conferences undercover, Burrows drew inspiration for MOM BABY GOD, a piece of true political theater. I recently chatted with Burrows about her creation, how it all came together and her experiences as an undercover anti-choicer.

For those who have yet to experience it, what can people expect at a viewing of MOM BABY GOD?

Think about going to your middle school or high school dance. There’s pop music playing, girls are furiously reapplying their lip gloss, boys are awkwardly trying to dance with said girls and the chaperones are going around trying to break everyone up. Now imagine that scenario in the context of a right-wing conference where young people are encouraged to wear purity rings, pledge their virginity for their future husband or wife and celebrate the closure of abortion clinics. MOM BABY GOD throws you into the world of the right-wing anti-abortion movement through the eyes of a teenage girl who is trying super hard to achieve the impossible “be sexy/don’t have sex” sexual culture available to young women in the U.S. It’s an immersive look into the anti-abortion movement, but it’s equally about the sexual culture and abstinence-only politics that go hand-in-hand with the politics of the anti-abortion movement. It’s very funny, very scary and very real.

How did you come up with the concept for MOM BABY GOD?

I conducted interviews and attended right-wing events as research for the play over the course of two years, so I had a lot of material to work with. The premise of the show is that you’re attending the Students for Life of America conference and at the conference’s culmination, attendees will help shut down the last abortion clinic in the state. I decided to give the show that kind of immersive framework because I didn’t want it to be a bunch of talking heads onstage. I wanted audiences to really get to know these characters, and to feel the same kind of urgency that I felt when I was attending these conferences and rallies.

Let’s talk more about your time immersed in the anti-choice youth movement. Did the folks you meet know you were conducting research?

Yes. I was in college at the time and my research was approved by the Institutional Review Board, so everyone I interviewed signed a waiver consenting to have their words used for the creation of a play about the pro-life movement 40 years after Roe v. Wade. I never had a fake identity or told people I was a pro-life activist, but I’m sure some people assumed that about me.

I definitely got a better understanding of the arguments and rhetoric of the movement, but not in the sense that it shifted my politics or made me more sympathetic to their movement’s goals as a whole. The more time I spent with them, the more fully I saw the tragedy on a human level of these politics—the way they affect young women, the shame-based understanding of sexuality they offer for young people. If anything it made me more committed to building the movement for reproductive justice.

You often hear that today’s youth are more complacent and less activist/involved in changing the world. Has that made it difficult for MBG to be taken seriously or a bit easier to have your voices heard amidst this supposed absence of activism?

I hear that all the time, too, and I don’t think this narrative of the “me” generation is true at all. You have a generation who are riddled with student debt, and a growing number of young people involved in campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, or involved with campaigns against sexual violence on campuses, or against deportations. There’s a growing opt-out movement against standardized testing, sometimes led by high-school students. I think with the Occupy movement you saw the first explosion of that, and that sentiment hasn’t gone away. If young people were apathetic we wouldn’t consistently have sold-out shows with incredibly young audiences by theater’s standards. In touring the show, it’s been really inspiring to see how many people are angry about the attack on reproductive rights, looking for ways to organize against the backlash, and articulating a new politics around sexuality and reproductive justice. I think we’re at the beginning stages of rebuilding a movement around these issues, but it’s definitely there and it’s growing.

Do you have any advice for young women interested in forging their own path in a similar way?

Don’t let fear of failure guide your decisions. Ignore that voice in your head or in your life that tells you you’re not good enough. In high school my friends developed a saying called “PYOT”—put yourself out there. It became a mantra for us to do things that scared us. I think girls and women are taught by our society to be hyper-conscious of how others view us. There’s a lot of coded and outright sexism that tells us we’re not good enough, and we’re taught to have a lot of fear. Fear of being judged, fear of failure. But sometimes the best things come from taking risks and doing things that are way outside our comfort zone.

Check out the MOM BABY GOD website to learn more about the production and tour.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user American Life League licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 11.24.22 AMAvital Norman Nathman is a former teacher and lifelong learner turned freelance writer. Her work, which places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights, has been featured in Bitch magazine, The New York Times, CNN, and RH Reality Check. She blogs regularly at The Mamafesto, and her first book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, was published this year by Seal Press.

Comments

  1. Alexandra Weitzel says:

    I am not Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. I believe that at times abortion is a necessary evil. I do agree that a lot of the Pro-Life & Abstinence campaigns are very much shame based and don’t help women understand their sexuality or that it is theirs to control, but then encourages them to be “ladies” and dress up and be attractive. On the opposite end of the spectrum I think the Pro-Choice movement doesn’t emphasize responsibility enough and doesn’t tell women to protect their bodies and guard their hearts. There is irresponsibility on both sides and I feel there needs to be a healthy middle ground. I am actually a youth director for my church and a rape & abuse survivor. I had an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 22 and I now have a gorgeous 7 year old boy. While I had a massive support system that allowed me to keep my baby, I have many friends who have had abortions and what Pro-Choicers DON’T tell you is the toll that takes on your soul. I believe that should be the story being told. We have a pop culture that is urging young people to do drugs and have casual, meaningless sex without any explanation of the consequences. Young girls especially are encouraged by pop icons to objectify themselves. It breaks my heart and makes me so sad because I was one of those girls objectifying herself to be accepted and what I got was HPV, a shattered heart, bruised body, and low self-esteem. I believe the talk doesn’t need to be reproductive rights or who’s Pro-Choice or Pro-Life. There has to be women (and men) banding together telling the women (and men) to guard their hearts and protect their bodies and be AWARE of the predators that roam. To focus on being educated and happy with themselves rather than “cool” and popular. To find meaningful relationships based on mutual respect and be in LOVE with the person you give your body to and when you do protect yourself from unplanned or unwanted pregnancy so you don’t have to go through the heartache of terminating an unborn child.

    To be even more long-winded, I think Pro-Choicers MUST understand eugenics and the Planned Parenthood founders. The founders of Planned Parenthood were all strong believers in Eugenics which promotes the idea of more children from the “fit” and less from the “unfit”. There is a reason that most Planned Parenthood Clinics are in low income, minority neighborhoods. I find it confusing (and ironic) that a lot of Pro-Choicers are also advocates for equal rights and HUGE advocates of civil rights yet support an organization that aims to eliminate the minority population and focuses on a VERY Nazi-esque rhetoric. Margaret Sanger’s 1939 Negro Project made it clear that the extermination of the black population was a goal of hers. So I am wary to trust an organization that aims at genocide under the guise of “reproductive rights”. Have you looked in to any of this stuff? I actually only recently started reading about it because of my dislike of GMO’s and Vaccines and recently discovered that Bill Gates is into eugenics, his grand father was with Planned Parenthood AND he is VERY candid about how he wants to lower the population. Anyway, I know this is a rabbit trail, I just feel like we all should be well informed before we choose a side and always err on the side of caution even when our passions are involved. It’s easy to get caught up in a cause and not understand the full scope of what you are supporting.

    • Rockerbabe says:

      Forced childbearing is unamerican and a great disservice to women in general. Women have 13th amendment rights that porhibit forced labor. The pro-life crowd absolutely refuses to accept that women are quite capable of making their own decisions without their input as if there were only one way to do anything. This business about PP is ridiculous. It is as if you have no knowledge or understanding of how PP works in this day and age. They provide the medical and couseling services that women want and are willing to pay for and PP does its work in a respectful manner. All of the business about eugenics and today’s PP is slander and not worthy of serious consideration.

    • Hurdygurdy says:

      Alexandra Weitzel, a quick google of “Margaret Sanger Negro Project” brings up many websites. I hope anyone doing research today knows that the information is only as good as the source. Have you looked at this? Its an interesting look at Margaret Sanger in context. PP makes it very clear they are not on board with the very limited connections Sanger had with the eugenics movement. Would you like to be judged by the beliefs of your grandmother? http://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/PPFA/OppositionClaimsAboutMargaretSanger.pdf

  2. Very well put. Keep the Margaret Sanger, Bill gates and eugenics out of it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. This is a free country. Now is the time to educate each other about ALL the facts being a woman entails. Women need a common ground and a forum of discussion. Women need to honour the crux of their own femininity. Women need to celebrate the three phases of femininity as individuals and together. Go to http://www.cmsorority.com and help create a forum for the dissertation of all our truths. Help create awareness of genuine feminine values. Thank you for this well said piece. Understanding where the founders came isn’t wise. No one is following those opinions in planned parenthood now. They provide a wonderfully kind option instead of a coat hanger. Let’s be forward looking and instead casting stones into the past, let’s create a platform that true feminine equality can be built on – a sorority based on the crux of every woman’s femininity. Go to http://www.cmsorority.com – your feed back there will add to the growing consciousness in women that we must define ourselves, respect ourselves and protect ourselves.

  3. Wonderful interview of a fascinating woman! I can’t wait to see the play – love when humor and theater are used to educate/engage folks about reproductive freedom, sexism or other progressive issues.

  4. Karen Brzezinska says:

    I”d like to reply partially to Ms. Wietzel’s comment, though I feel quite shocked by the various allegations of Eugenics and ‘control of the negro population’ as being the underlying motivation for making birth control and safe abortions available. Black women are not the only ones using the services of Planned Parenthood. One of the reasons one might find Planned Parenthood in or near low-income neighbourhoods (perhaps Ms. Wietzel, who enjoyed by her own admission, considerable support during her unplanned pregnancy at the age of 22, doesn’t live in such a neighborhood) is because PP offers sliding scale pricing to make its services available to those with lower income, services which (one could safely assume, given the deplorable state of health care access in the US until recently) would presumably be more accessible to those in *higher-income* neighbourhoods. Having grown up in a working class area in the US, I took more than one of my friends to a PP clinic for birth control, because otherwise they would not have been able to afford it. Ms. Wietzel focuses on abortions, but PP provides birth control (thereby reducing the likelihood of needing an abortion). being able to control one’s pregnancies means a woman has a better chance of acquiring more education, protecting her own health, earning more money and providing a better situation for existing children by not overstretching income and other resources. That’s what it’s really about: education about and access to affordable birth control means a woman – and that would include those women who perhaps do NOT have the kind of support to make an unplanned pregnancy a workable situation- has more freedom to choose for herself. I find Ms. Weitzel’s commentary rather strongly seasoned with her own moral judgments (and of course that is the point of the comments section) which I find unevenly presented; at the same time I do agree about the less than desirable imagery of women put forth by celebrities and MTV-type influences. Her good luck and subsequent happiness with a child doesn’t mean that would be the case for other women who find themselves having to make that difficult decision; I’m not clear if that’s apparent to her. Slandering the good and necessary services provided by PP doesn’t solve the problem, really, any more than teaching creationism in schools and banning proper sex education is going to help young people make well-reasoned choices, or learn to function in a respectful way within the framework of a democracy. Abortions increase when there is no access to birth control, that’s a universal fact, and it’s been going on since time out of mind. (Abortions are even described in the Bible.) Aoortions won’t go away, they will just become unsafe and put women into greater danger.

  5. Nicole Chojnacki says:

    I’m pro-choice because I realize that if abortion wasn’t legal, we’d be back to the days of unsafe, back-alley or coathanger abortions- women will always want to end pregnancies and I believe that they deserve to do so in a safe, hygienic manner.

  6. Ms. Weitzel: You have GOT to be kidding! The idea of Planned Parenthood, or anyone else currently providing health care for women, trying to “eliminate the minority population” is complete insanity. The reason clinics are often in low-income neighborhoods is that our society does such a poor job of providing medical care to lower-income people any other way. It’s sad and disturbing that so many people in the early 20th century, including Margaret Sanger, bought into ideas about eugenics, but that is irrelevant to the issues we face today. (And Sanger, by the way, opposed abortion.) Accusing Planned Parenthood of “aiming at genocide” is cruel and misinformed.

    I am a health-care provider myself. Many of my patients have relied on Planned Parenthood clinics for basic care like Pap smears and treatment of infections, because even though they were well-educated and working, they had no health insurance and could not afford “regular” OB-GYN appointments. That’s the reality.

    You say, quite reasonably, that when you “give your body” you should “protect yourself from unplanned or unwanted pregnancy”– but without the last century’s activists such as Margaret Sanger, we might not have the legal ability or the materials and medications to do so. I don’t think you want to go back to a time when your only choice was between no sex ever and unwanted pregnancy. I sure don’t.

  7. Ms. Weitzel’s second paragraph is on the money. We’ve never paid back the money we stole from the folks who came here from Africa. Oh sure, we ended slavery and stopped killing them ourselves; what we’ve done instead is persuade them to kill each other — anything but pay back.
    All it would take is pay teachers in the ghetto more money.

  8. Let’s stop calling the other side “pro-life.” I am pro-choice because I am pro-life. I know that if you make abortion difficult access or illegal, there will still be abortion but now they will be more dangerous and women will take things into their own hands and more women will die.

    Call them anti-abortion, anti-choice, anti-women. The minute you call them pro-life, then those of us who are pro-choice, pro-reprorights/justice become “pro-death.” We are not pro-death. We are pro- letting the woman decide, not forcing our religion on others…

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