Book Review: "On Abortion" by Laia Abril
By Frances Molina
From cover to cover, On Abortions, the first book in artist Laia Abril’s long-term project “A History of Misogyny”, brings readers through a political, cultural, and theological history of abortion and the devastating repercussions women face without access to safe and legal abortions. According to Abril, this is a history of blood and pain, fear and desperation, politics and police - a history that is constantly repeating itself as the number of women in prison for undergoing abortion and the number of women - and children - who die due to medical complications of illegal abortion procedures continue to climb.
On Abortion is a cumulative work of research, with photographs and testimonies collected from countries around the world. These visual and textual stories recount the physical and emotional trauma many women have experienced at the hands of governments that wield draconian anti-abortion laws. The black-and-white portraits of these women - eyes trained on the lens, mouths set and determined - are a symbolic riposte to a global culture that demands shame and regret from women who have undergone abortions. These women, however, are not afraid to be seen, not afraid to be heard.
But a host of other women in Abril’s collection can make no such reply. In another portrait series, the artist obscures the faces of women from Poland to El Salvador who have died due to illegal or denied abortions. They smile up at the reader as if from behind a fog, the disturbing stories of their deaths so at odds with their happy faces. Other images are pixelated, so distorted with shadow and inverted colors, that they are barely recognizable as human faces. These are the individual casualties of what Abril calls a “history of misogyny that has been largely invisible until now”.
The photographs as well as the physical book itself are structurally complex, intent on revealing a reality of pain hiding in plain sight. For example, interspersed throughout the text are seemingly innocuous images: a pile of snow, a steam bath, a gnarly branch, several packets of rat poison, a bushel of random herbs. Attached to each page, however, is a small invisible flap that the reader can lift to discover the various different and dangerous methods women have used throughout history to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Additionally, Abril alternates her use of regular and high-gloss stock for her photographs, utilizing higher quality stock for what are arguably her most provocative images: the ultrasound of a child born to a 9-year-old victim of incestuous rape, screenshots of politicians giving polemic anti-abortion statements, and a pixelated red blur which is later revealed to be a fetus the size of a coin.
Every aspect of On Abortion forces the reader to stop, look, and pay attention, striking the reader with an almost morbid curiosity for the unsettling information confined discreetly to flaps and page corners. Yet despite its capacity to shock and disturb, Abril’s work is never needlessly graphic or obscene. Instead, she allows the work to speak for itself; not in screams and shouts, but in haunting silence and a relentless murmur of truth.