Abortion Art and its #MeToo Moments
by Larayb Abrar
Printed in bold, black letters on a white t-shirt were the words “I didn’t want an abortion, I needed one” at the My Body My Life travelling exhibition in the U.K. On an adjacent wall, were slips of paper with the words “My abortion story…” printed on them, allowing other women to fill in the blank. One of these slips read “My abortion story…would make me a criminal in my home country.” This could have been the story of any woman in the United States before the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. In fact, this was exactly Norma McCorvey’s story, the woman who took the issue of abortion to the Supreme Court in the first place.
In McCorvey’s case, she was unable to get an abortion in the state of Texas because according to Texas law, it was illegal to assist a woman with an abortion and women could be convicted of manslaughter if the abortion was reported to the police. The Court held that under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, a right to privacy extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, thereby striking down the Texas law and making the right to an abortion constitutionally binding. While all this sounds great, it is no accident that it seems a bit counter-intuitive to frame the right to an abortion as a privacy issue rather than a 14th Amendment equal protection issue. Thus, instead of using this case to make a statement on women’s rights and liberties, the primary right preserved in the Roe decision was that of the physician’s to practice medicine freely without the interference of the State.
Prior to Roe, women’s reproductive health in the U.S. looked eerily like images out of Spanish photographer Laia Abril’s 2016 exhibition On Abortion. The exhibition featured ghostly photographs of objects from the archive of the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna: a condom made out of fish bladder, sharp surgical instruments and other medical images. Also on display were portraits of women as they told their experience getting illegal abortions. One Polish woman recalled a 15-hour procedure in an over-crowded, airless clinic. In their goriness, these photographs force us to consider the injustice of abortion restriction. Contrary to Roe’s logic of abortion being a private matter, most abortion art seeks to challenge this assumption, focusing on getting women’s voices and perspectives out into the open.
Yet, when it comes to abortion today, we are often faced with a constant public questioning of a private right. On July 9, Donald Trump announced Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Kennedy's decision to retire. This nomination has left many worried about the future of abortion rights given that during Trump’s 2016 campaign, he stressed his commitment to placing pro-life justices on the court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Moreover, there are already certain states with existing restrictions such as banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy regardless of whether the woman was a victim of rape or incest in Mississippi, or banning an abortion as soon as a heartbeat is detected in Iowa. In both cases, the argument is that the State reserves the right to regulate abortion as it sees fit as long as they keep it in some form of the word, “legal.”
What emerges out of the government’s unwillingness to budge or engage in this topic is a narrative on women’s issues such as contraception, reproduction and sexual assault as topics that should be considered “private”, on the margins and not worthy of further discussion, whereas men’s issues are open for public hearing and decision-making. Despite all this, a major tool for shifting mainstream narratives has always been art. In examining various artworks devoted to exploring the lack of access, trauma and the workings of the female body, abortion takes on new meanings as the works keep with the feminist tradition of seeing the personal as political and making the private public.
In 2008, an undergraduate Art student at Yale University, Aliza Shvarts, was banned from exhibiting her senior thesis due to the controversy her abortion art garnered. Shvarts allegedly documented herself being artificially inseminated and then inducing miscarriages several times over the course of a year. While the university stood the ground that her actions were dangerous, there are several accounts of artists self-harming to produce provocative artwork throughout history. Which begs the question, what was wrong with her artwork? Later, the university claimed that Shvarts’ actions were in fact an act of fictive storytelling, which Shvarts denied. The themes emerging here are those of documenting “private” procedures but at the same time an institutional restriction of displaying the documented, a denial of calling it art and pushing it further into silence.
Abril’s On Abortion and the My Body My Life exhibition grappled with similar public vs. private themes. Abril’s photographs expose the reproductive dangers faced by women and the life-threatening procedures some women resort to; a reminder that women all over the world must cope with their lack of access. In the same vein as publicizing and sharing female narratives of abortion, My Body My Life features these stories written out in text, displayed on t-shirts and walls. The idea here is that anyone can pick up a t-shirt and identify with the story written on it because of how common the experience is. Women can read the story of a complete stranger and go, “Me too.”
By opening up the conversation, no longer is abortion something to be whispered about or a matter of shame. In fact, these works efface the tradition of silence being imposed under the guise of privacy. We don’t know the future of abortion rights in the U.S. or elsewhere, but what we can definitely count on are other artists insisting on changing the narrative and bringing the issue out of its private framing.