As Nicole Stewart sits in a Lakewood cafe on a busy Thursday, some 200 miles away in Austin the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is hearing testimony regarding a proposed rule that would require abortion clinics to bury or cremate fetal tissue. Reproductive rights advocates like Stewart — the artistic director and founder of Oral Fixation, a Dallas-based storytelling show — decry the move as merely one facet of “an overall belief that women are not capable of making their own personal decisions.”
Stewart, a Dallas native with a background in theater, has taken on issues both light and heavy in her Oral Fixation series, which has, as its tagline notes, “an obsession with true life tales.” Her “Pulling Teeth” show was rife with tales of dentist-office horror, while “Destination America” focused on stories of the immigrant experience.
But in an election year when reproductive rights have come under attack, Stewart’s decision to curate a show that would allow women, their partners and even abortion providers to tell their personal stories was, as she says, “totally intentional.” And for good reason: Texas has been a battleground for the pro-choice movement in recent months.
Mere weeks before Thursday’s THHSC hearing, headlines nationwide were gripped by the Supreme Court ruling against a Texas law that would have required abortion providers to upgrade their facilities in such a way that would have shuttered most of the state's clinics.
The conversation about reproductive rights is, of course, also a national one. Stewart cites the addition of Governor Mike Pence to Donald Trump’s ticket as yet another motivator for her show. The need to “put into place legislators who understand this issue from 360 degrees ... is essential,” Stewart says. And cultivating understanding is an enormous goal, both stated and unstated, of “Out From Under the Rug: True Life Tales of Abortion.”
In terms of frankness, Stewart practices what she preaches. Stewart is candid about her own reproductive history, and for good reason. After her abortion, she had a miscarriage before eventually giving birth to her daughter Serena, now nearly 9 months old.
“I had a late-term abortion due to fetal abnormality in late June of 2013, and my story happened to intersect with Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the [Texas] Senate,” she explains. Just before her first appointment at an abortion clinic, Stewart not only felt the twinge of fate, but also learned, for the first time, the power of candid speech about abortion.
“I live-streamed Wendy’s filibuster on my computer and she was talking about women just like me.” Women, that is, who were choosing to end what she called “intentional” pregnancies for medical or other reasons. Stewart also vociferously champions the rights of women to end pregnancies for other reasons, including the less heart-rending “I don’t want children” or “now isn’t the right time.”
Films such as Obvious Child and television shows such as Friday Night Lights and the Shonda Rimes prime time staples Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal have depicted modern-day abortion stories with no small amount of fanfare. However, true stories of abortion narrated are more difficult for us to both share and hear. Nonetheless, Stewart agrees that first-person storytelling about abortion is important for the culture and for the women who undergo abortion procedures. And these stories always highlight the all-important element of choice.
“When we had our abortion, we thought about what would happen to the remains,” Stewart says in a nod to Thursday’s fetal tissue hearing. Her use of the collective “we” is telling of her nuanced understanding of the countless ways that abortion reverberates in the lives of women, couples, families and communities.
“We propagate the idea that abortion is a women’s issue” Stewart says, when, in fact, it is a human issue. Stewart’s husband, Anton Schlesinger, spoke to Esquire earlier this year about Stewart’s abortion and about the movement that Stewart calls “men for choice.”
“I’m intentionally going to cast at least one male in each of the shows,” she says. “It’s essential that that point of view is shared. Because it's easier for men in the Legislature … to say, ‘It’s a women’s issue,’ and it’s [therefore] not treated with the same respect.”
Becoming a “spokesperson for abortion” wasn’t a role Stewart ever imagined she’d play, but now that the local and national spotlights are fixed on her, she welcomes the opportunity to destigmatize abortion, even though she acknowledges that her show is “a bigger challenge than [she’s] ever taken on.” She also recognizes that her storytellers are giving her a great gift: “What I’m asking … is a lot.”
Yet Stewart gives back, it seems, far more than she ever seeks, and facilitating the sharing of these stories is not the end of her advocacy work, either: Stewart hopes to take the show to other cities and even other states. What’s more, using The Vagina Monologues as a model, she hopes to one day publish some of the stories as a play.
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The realization of Stewart’s larger goals seems to be close at hand: She has already spoken at TEDxSMU, been featured on Upworthy, garnered the support of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and the TEA Fund, and enlisted aid from celebrities like Martha Plimpton and Olivia Wilde.
But these advocates aren’t Stewart’s truest audience. “I’m not producing this show to preach to the choir,” she says. Instead, she hopes the storytellers featured in her shows will help destigmatize abortion in a state and national climate prone to oppressive silence and shame.
“I want to have this conversation,” Stewart says. “I’m not afraid of the other side.”
“Out From Under the Rug” will take place in Dallas on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the Dallas City Performance Hall ( 2520 Flora St.) and in Austin on Monday, Oct. 10, at the Zach Theatre (1510 Toomey Road). Tickets are $25 on PreKindle. Stewart is also still taking submissions. If you have a story to share, visit oralfixationshow.com.