Australian Play 19 Weeks Breaks the Silence Around Abortion

“When I heard about someone who had a late abortion I’d think, ‘Well, that’s not very clever, that’s not very responsible, is it?’,” recites actress Tiffany Lyndall Knight.

She’s wearing a blood-red bathing suit, staring out from a swimming pool in the basement of an old Adelaide hotel.

Watching on is playwright Emily Steel, who in 2016 terminated a pregnancy at 19 weeks after her baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome — and the story being performed is hers.

The play 19 Weeks — staged in a pool — sold out at the Perth and Adelaide Fringe festivals, with reviews proclaiming it “unflinchingly honest” and “utterly exceptional, imperative work”.

“It’s blown my mind a little bit,” Steel says.

“It let me understand the people around me are in fact kinder and more understanding than I had feared they would be.”

Mid-shot of performer Tiffany Lyndall Knight floating face up in an indoor pool wearing a red swimsuit.

Abortion laws in Australia

  • Abortion laws differ across every state and territory
  • Women can choose to have an abortion until 24 weeks gestation in Victoria, 20 weeks in WA, and 16 weeks in Tasmania. Practitioners need to agree to procedures beyond this
  • In South Australia two doctors must agree the pregnancy would be harmful to the woman’s health, or there is a risk of the child being seriously mentally or physically handicapped
  • Abortion is legal up to 14 weeks in the NT with a doctor’s approval, and emergency abortions are legal up to 23 weeks
  • Abortion is a crime in NSW and Queensland – except if it protects a woman’s mental or physical health

Up to one in three Australian women are estimated to have an abortion in their lifetime, according to University of Melbourne health sociologist Associate Professor Louise Keogh. But the experience remains steeped in silence.

“The experience itself is very isolating, and it’s more isolating I think because this isn’t something people talk about,” Steel says.

Sharing her account was “terrifying”. But as a playwright committed to exploring society’s “untold stories”, she felt a responsibility to open up.

“I wasn’t sure how it would go down, in the theatre community or the wider community.

“I didn’t know if this was the last play I’d ever write in this town because I didn’t know if I’d be employable after this … It felt important enough to share it that I took that risk.”

Mid-shot of performed Tiffany Lyndall Knight sitting upright with arms held against legs in front of a dimly lit indoor pool.

For this show, there’s no darkened theatre to hide emotions in. People sit around the pool with their toes in the water, coming face to face with the vulnerable actress, this heart-wrenching story, and each other.

Steel said she received many moving responses from women who had seen the play and contacted her afterwards to say they had a similar experience.

“[A lot of women said that] until they saw the show, they thought that nobody else in the world had felt the way they felt.”

“That was the point: if one person comes to see the show and goes away feeling less alone, job done.”

Wide shot of performed Tiffany Lyndall Knight standing by a green tiled indoor pool looking pensively into distance.

She was also contacted by people who had children with Down syndrome, who had concerns about the play and what it might say.

“I do understand where they’re coming from,” she says.

“I think this is complicated, it’s a complicated issue … I would not want to dismiss their concerns. I hope that what the show does is, it talks about this choice intelligently.

“I think for everyone it’s a personal decision, and it’s based on where you are in your life and what you are capable of at that time.

“But that sense of being the only person in the world that ever went through anything like this, that feeling’s really gone away.”