A Playwright’s Plea

on February 6 | in Featured | by

Elizabeth Heffron M.F.A. ’14 wrote Mitzi’s Abortion to foster common ground in a contentious debate.

By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Elizabeth Heffron M.F.A. '14Four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, the issue of abortion remains deeply polarizing, so much so that frank and open discussions about the procedure and the complex range of circumstances in which it is considered or performed are rare.

Inspired by the true story of a young woman’s late-term abortion and the personal tragedy and legal struggles that precipitated it, playwright Elizabeth Heffron M.F.A. ’14 penned the comedy-drama Mitzi’s Abortion: A Saint’s Guide to Late-Term Politics & Medicine in America to jump-start a constructive dialogue among families, medical professionals, politicians, and the public at large, regardless of where they stand in the abortion debate. Heffron wrote the play in 2006 and it premiered to rave reviews in Seattle, where she resides, and Washington, D.C.; in November, Mitzi’s Abortion made its national university debut as Hollins Theatre’s fall production.

Mirroring the actual case, “Mitzi is 23, married to this military guy, and she finds herself pregnant,” Heffron, a student in the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, explained. “At six months an ultrasound discovers her fetus’s brain has no frontal cortex.”

The defect, anencephaly, eliminates all brain function except for the autonomic nervous system. The condition is fatal: the baby dies at birth or shortly thereafter. “But inside the womb, with the help of the mother, the fetus continues to live,” Heffron noted. “With this condition these pregnancies can go well past nine months because it’s the frontal cortex that tells the mother when it’s time to go into labor. It’s emotionally, physically devastating.”

As with her real-life counterpart, Mitzi and her husband have military-provided health insurance. But because of the Hyde Amendment (passed by Congress in 1977 to prohibit using federal funds to pay for abortions), their medical plan refuses to cover an induction of labor, determining it to be tantamount to an abortion procedure. Mitzi’s physician faces a difficult decision: allow the pregnancy—and Mitzi’s suffering—to continue, or commit fraud and claim her water broke, a circumstance in which inducing labor is justifiable because the mother’s life would then be in danger.

(In the actual case, a court ordered the insurance company to cover the procedure. However, the decision came with a caveat: It could not be used as a precedent for similar cases in the future. “In reality,” Heffron said, “doctors have had to make that kind of choice.”)

Heffron believes this dilemma is tailormade for the playwriting genre. “I majored in psychobiology at UCLA and was studying behavior from the inside out—what happens in your brain, for example, when you recognize someone. Playwriting is sort of the outside in: you’re watching people on stage and you’re seeing why they are doing things. It’s a three-dimensional form of writing as opposed to prose or poetry.” Heffron also uses the format to blend the real with the surreal as she weaves in the history of abortion with the central story. Reckless Mary, a Scottish midwife, and 13th-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas are key characters.

Mitzi’s Abortion does not take sides other than to convey that abortion is not a black-and-white issue. “It’s clear we’ve got laws that are trying to fit everything into one category or another,” Heffron said. “There are a lot of situations that just don’t match that.”

“I was amazed at how many people have been through, if not this, something close. After seeing the play, a woman and her husband told me, 30 years before, they had gone through an experience similar to Mitzi’s. Because they felt so demonized, they had never been able to discuss it or even grieve. So they wrote and said, ‘Thank you so much for this play. We were able to go home and talk about this for the first time.’”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.

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