Abortion laws and Opera

The emerging wave of anti-abortion laws sweeping through the US is the latest alarming sign that the fight for women’s bodily freedom is far from over. Not that we needed another reminder. Or even a fight in the first place.

Alabama have already introduced a near-total ban on abortion, making it a ‘Class A felony’ for any doctor to perform one (which means life imprisonment). Amendments to permit abortions in cases of rape and incest have been rejected. Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia and most recently Louisiana have also adopted much tighter abortion laws, making it almost impossible for women to have the right to an abortion.

Here in the UK, Jeremy Hunt said over the weekend he’d be in favour of halving the legal time limit for abortions from 24 to 12 weeks. Actual changes to the law are unlikely but we should be deeply concerned that a frontrunner in the Conservative leadership is expressing these views when abortion is still completely illegal in Northern Ireland.

Birth control and reproductive rights are complex topics the world over. But fundamentally, I share the belief that we should all have the right to choose what happens to our body. In the case of abortion, that’s a choice for an individual woman to make. Not another woman, or another man, and especially not the twenty-five exclusively white Republican men who brought Alabama’s new abortion law into place.

It’s not hard to get passionate about this topic and like many other people I’ve always, instinctively, been a supporter of reproductive rights and bodily freedom. But my passion for the topic intensified in 2017 while I was researching for a new opera I was writing about the controversial birth control pioneer Marie Stopes. 

My research focused on an archive of intimate letters in the Wellcome Collection library that were written from members of the public to Stopes in response to the publication of her infamous sex manual ‘Married Love’ in 1918.Despite being a complex figure, in her revolutionary book Stopes fiercely advocated for women’s bodily freedom; asserted that women have equal sexual desire (and therefore choice in sexual matters) to men; and brought previously unobtainable information about methods of contraception to the world. It caused a storm and prompted men and women to write to Stopes in their thousands from around the globe, with correspondence ranging from aggressive hate-mail to poems of adoration. 

Reading through this century old time capsule of society’s attitudes, beliefs and every-day experiences of birth control, female sexuality and bodily freedom prompted me to ask, “What has actually changed in 100 years? How far have we come in the debate about women’s bodily freedom?”

Luckily, we have made some good progress since then. But, shockingly so, not enough. My line of enquiry back in 2017 was fueled by the British government having just made a deal with the anti-abortion DUP party: an influential faction of our government was now going to be against women’s right to choose, and our leader (at the time) invited them into power. This was, of course, in the wake of the misogynistic new US President having moved into The Whitehouse, prompting women’s protest marches around the world to defend women’s rights, including reproductive rights, and the largest single-day protest in US history.Anti-abortionist stances were once again permeating the highest tiers of government, as they are right now.

The output from my research was the new opera, Dear Marie Stopes, which premiered at the Wellcome Collection in August 2018 with a text exclusively drawn from real fragments of the original letters, collated by the writer Jennifer Thorp and archivist Lesley Hall. The striking thing about the archive, and what forms one of the main threads of the opera, is thatthe largest type of correspondence by far was from very frightened and distressed women, many of whom were very poor, desperately seeking help and advice about contraception and how to stop having children. For many of these women, seeking help was a matter of life or death. One of the opening lines of the opera, drawn from an original letter, is “I’m 37. I’ve had 14 children, nine living. The doctor said if I have any more it might prove fatal. The doctor said I have a very weak heart. I should like your advice as soon as you can. I hope you will not be annoyed with me.”

It upsets and enrages me that, in the case of Alabama and no doubt the other states who follow suit, it's most likely to be the poorest and least educated women whose lives will be devastated by a law passed by men that restricts their bodily freedom. The story is the same around the world, especially in poor and developing countries where the situation is as bad, or in some ways worse, as it was when men and women were writing to Stopes in the UK a century ago.

In September, Dear Marie Stopes is being performed again at Kings Place in London. While I don’t hold much hope that things will have drastically changed between now and then, I do hope that anybody who hears the opera’s story about the plight of desperate women living 100 years ago will feel moved to help and support the women living today who are suffering the same fate at the hands of people who should know better.

- "Dear Marie Stopes”by Alex Mills will be performed at Kings Place on September 21st 2019