Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Hi! Are you here for the Pro-Life Youth Conference? Do you like cupcakes and birthdays? Here, have a cupcake! Did you know that one in three babies never gets to have a birthday because of abortion?” Actress and playwright Madeline Burrows greeted audience members with TastyKakes and energy on Monday evening as they entered Olde Club, posing as a bubbly “pro-life teen” before the Monday performance of her play Mom Baby God, a pro-choice, one-person play depicting the events that unfold at a pro-life conference at a crisis pregnancy center.
Mom Baby God centers around Jessica, a perky, Justin Bieber-loving, pro-life teen attending a pro-life youth conference and interacting with different personalities there — including other pro-life teens, a minister who preaches with thinly-veiled racism, and a “New Wave pro-life feminist” who is an enthusiastic advocate of “hot, marital sex.” Meeting this diverse cast of characters sheds lights on the different mentalities, propaganda, and rhetoric that make up the pro-life movement.
In its hour running time, Mom Baby God manages to paint a comprehensive, sensitive portrait of the anti-abortion movement. The play reminds audiences not only of the fight yet to be won for reproductive justice, but also of the theater’s potential to humanize politics.
A speech by one of the characters in the play, a speaker at a “Sexual Purity Workshop,” includes examples of the types of deliberately distorted “facts” about birth control and contraception deployed by the pro-life activists depicted in Mom Baby God. Says that character: “It’s a real experience to deliver a baby with an IUD implanted in its skull, because the IUD has failed! These methods will fail. And contraception will lead to abortion, because the baby will try to go into the uterus and uterus lining is now so thin that the baby cannot attach, so the baby will eventually starve and die.”
“One of the questions that people always ask me… is, ‘How much of this stuff is real? Did you make most of this stuff up?’ And I wish I could say that all this is just a fabrication of my own, but it’s based on real people, […] conversations, interviews I had with people, [and] speeches,” said Burrows during the Q & A after the play. She spent two years researching the anti-abortion movement for her play by going undercover as a pregnant teen and interviewing right-wing activists at different conferences and rallies including March for Life and Youth Rally for Life. Her immersion informed her not only about racism, sexism, and misinformation of young people propagated by anti-abortion activists, but also about the sheer magnitude and organization of the movement throughout the United States.
“One thing that really struck me was, they are really well-organized, really vocal, and really unapologetic,” said Burrows during the Q & A. “But they’re not the majority of the people in this country. But they’re winning, because they’re really out there, and they’re unapologetic and they’re in your face.” In Mom Baby God, Burrows touches on the methodical campaigning by pro-life activists, which extends to social media among right-wing youth – for instance, the main character Jessica has a video blog entitled “I’m a Pro-Life Teen.”
The play also hints at the marketing of the pro-life agenda to women of color — a tactic that has highlighted racism and sexism in the struggle over reproductive rights. In citing examples of racism, Burrows spoke of the “save the brown babies” mentality among some “right-wing adoption agencies that are very invested in relinquishing children from women of color and putting them in white homes.”
“I really like the term ‘reproductive justice’ more than ‘pro-choice,’” said Burrows, “because I think that it is more encompassing, and it opens up space to talk about racism and class and sexism and homophobia… and how all those things impact our abilities to have children or not. Because it’s not just about whether you can have an abortion or not… it’s also about who is allowed to have children in this country.”
A deeply emotional and psychological issue at the heart of Burrows’ play is how the pro-life movement affects young people. The character of Jessica encounters the challenge of being a hormonal teenager who has received a startling lack of sex education and is taught a doctrine of abstinence. After a sexual encounter with another teenager at the conference, Jessica experiences staggering feelings of fear and guilt about her sexuality. The rude sexual awakening of the play is reminiscent of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a play about teenagers in nineteenth-century Germany who are traumatized by the conflict between their growing sexuality and the stifling culture around them.
“I love that play,” said Burrows in an interview with the Daily Gazette. “I think I was subconsciously inspired by it when writing the character of Jessica. I love how [Wedekind] is sympathetic to young people’s sexuality without being condescending.”
Perhaps the greatest success of Mom Baby God is its balance between politics and human emotion. To Burrows, political theater has to maintain such a balance since “art that’s political tends to be so tacky and hits you over the head.” When explaining to this reporter why she chose to pursue activism through theater, Burrows cited the emotional turmoil of Jessica, who is ultimately traumatized by the movement in which she participates. “You can’t bring that to a political rally,” she said. To her, theater as an art form has the potential to bring politics to a personal and emotional level. “When you have two lovers who can’t be together because they’re separated by a border, that’s political, but you also have that personal love story.”
Image Courtesy of Mom Baby God