Art and Abortion

On May 2, 2022, a draft decision leaked from the US Supreme Court confirmed what many had feared: that the highest US court was set to overturn the 1973 decision Roe vs. Wade and roll back protections governing women’s rights. Almost immediately after, appointment books and clinics began to close in multiple US states. This situation was far from isolated; in the U.K., pandemic gains for women in access to early at-home abortion will roll back on August 29th, 2022. As these and other examples from around the world demonstrate, the present moment appears to be one of regression and regulation. 

In the light of these unprecedented cuts to abortion access concomitant with greater restrictions on women’s rights to make choices about their bodies, this panel takes up the politics surrounding the history of abortion as it threads through art practice and activism. The prioritization of the rights of the unborn over the those of girls, women, and others to their own bodies has a deeply rooted precedent and has thereby been a subject of artistic engagement and counterstrategy from the deep past through contemporary activist and feminist art–a lineage that can be traced, for example, from the production of ancient Greek medical tools to Marylin Minter’s Cuntrol (2019).  

Our panel invited historians of art and scholars of adjacent fields to engage with any aspect of the artistic engagement with abortion from antiquity to the present. Non-traditional approaches, methodologies, and objects are welcome, as are collaborations and cross-disciplinary formulations. Given the sensitive nature of this topic, we ask that presenters and audience members maintain awareness that others in the room may need content warnings and support during the presentations and subsequent conversation — and we, as convenors, will help facilitate such support. 

Session Convenors:

Leila Easa, University of California, Davis

Jennifer Stager, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

Distinguished Respondent: 

Mary Fissell, J. Mario Molina Professor in the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore


Abigail Graham, Research Fellow in Roman Archaeology, Institute for Classical Studies, University of London 

Call the Midwife: Cognitive Approaches to Reading Obstetrix Epitaphs 

Part of reconstructing ancient narratives involves approaching ancient sources new ways. While we may struggle to get first-hand discussions of abortions in the ancient world, we can look more closely at the women involved in this process as administers of medical advice and/or medicine: Roman midwives “opstetrix”/ “obstetrix”. Obstetrix epitaphs provide a unique insight into how this occupation was presented and viewed in antiquity. It is a relatively small sample (ca. 20 epitaphs) but one that could provide an interesting counter-narrative to the perception of Obswomen and their role in medicine. While midwife epitaphs have been studied previously, the focus of assessment has been text-based, often working with the materials as a collective: providing statistics (age, class, date) in comparison with other occupations.  Few (if any) images are provided, overlooking the individuality and physicality of the epitaphs as images that were presented to a broader neurodiverse audience. Some texts are ornately framed with decorations that may have been subtle references to their roles. The identities of these women are also interesting: names are often Greek, though samples come from Rome and North Africa, which was famed for its siliphium plant (known to induce an abortion). This approach to viewing epitaphs is a step beyond traditional literature-based assessments, which offers a unique opportunity to engage with midwives through an embodied assessment of their monuments.  

Caitlin  Powell, PhD Candidate, History of Art, University College London 

The Problem of the Public: Abortion in German Health Fair Culture (1925 – 1931) 

The demand for reproductive rights was a matter of public contention throughout interwar Germany. §218 threatened mothers and doctors alike with a penal term; however, despite the draconian laws and severity of the courts, this proved difficult to enforce. German women were driven in ever-increasing numbers – estimated as many as one million per year by 1931 – to backstreet abortionists. Within this fraught political landscape, health fairs and hygiene exhibitions served as crucial sites for the public production of knowledge. Indeed, they demonstrate the intensification of what I am terming a ‘culture of natality’, namely the generation of cultural forms to support a public investment in birth rate. In 1927 abortion was legalised for specific medical conditions and the rhythms of a repressive, but relatively impotent, set of laws met with the need to represent and educate the public on abortion as a ‘new’, albeit limited, possibility. 

This paper will think through the complex constellation of historical display practice, socio- political, cultural and legal changes, and the ways in which these contours shaped the institutional display of termination – how abortion was visualised and understood through images. Technologies of termination and the pregnant body itself were highly contested objects of representation in these spaces, undergoing multiple, rapid reconfigurations. This paper argues that the exhibition trends of health fair culture should not simply be understood as attempts to discipline the reproductive body, in Foucauldian terms, but to renegotiate the very notion of discipline within a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. 

Hana Janeckova, doctoral candidate at the Institute for Art History, Theory and Culture, Charles University and Assistant Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague, Czech Republic

Embodied epistemologies: How and to what effect do artist run vaginal self-examination workshops testify to the ongoing importance of body autonomy as a feminist strategy? 

This paper discusses a surge of performances, workshops and zines concerning reproductive justice by the feminist and feminist-influenced artists and collectives that were staged between 2016 and 2019 in institutions of contemporary art. Delivering medicinal knowledge about abortive herbs, contraceptive pills and practical vaginal self-examination, workshops appeared both as a community-based practice and as part of institutional care-related programming. These activities were influenced by artists’ research into 1970s collective feminist projects concerning bodily autonomy such as Our Bodies Ourselves and performed by artists themselves. This paper is concerned with varied epistemic strategies developed by American artist Jenna Bliss at KW Berlin in 2017, Berlin-based collective Feminist Healthcare Research Group and an international group Power Makes us Sick, while working with embodied strategies and participative methods as re-enactments of 1970s practical self-care sessions. Using the term ‘alliance’ as an expanded frame for dehierarchised collaboration, the paper will seek to identify to what extent such practices may serve as a tool for a collective translocal feminist project, while critically examining the role of contemporary art institutions in such a process.  

Discussing such works dealing with reproductive justice through issues of care as identified in Radicalizing Care: Activism in Feminist and Queer Curating and in the work of María Puig de la Bellacasa, this paper will evaluate the role of embodied epistemologies in recent and contemporary feminist and feminist-orientated art. 

Elizabeth Legge, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, University of Toronto 

Fascinating Fetalism: Mark Ryden’s Fetal Trapping in Northern California 

In 1997, Lauren Berlant marvelled that America, once “a nation made for adult citizens,” had been replaced by “one imagined for fetuses and children.” That prophetic infantilizing has been an element of Mark Ryden’s painting, in which familiar cultural signs — pop celebrities (Katy Perry), Barbie dolls, Alice in Wonderland, and Abraham Lincoln, and garish cuts of raw meat — are jarringly combined. The carrion taint is held off by a cryogenic and cloying old-fashioned wholesomeness often keyed to Barbie Doll pink. In Fetal Trapping in Northern California (2006), a diminutive Abraham Lincoln presents Alice in Wonderland with 

an uncompromisingly un-picturesque fetus in its amniotic sac, a substitute for his usual raw meat. Is the legendary Honest Abe, father of the nation and freer of slaves, here reinvented as a trafficker or abortionist? Or, given the George W. Bush presidency’s cuts to family planning funding, restrictions on scientific stem cell research, and 2004 “Family Priorities” campaign ad, is Ryden’s Lincoln a huckster for the religious right wing of “The Party of Lincoln,” and, hence, protector of Alice’s innocence? Abortion had been an election issue in the 2004 presidential campaign, and talking points about the beginning of life could either be summarized or refuted 

by what Ryden’s Lincoln seems to present in evidence: but evidence of what? Ryden’s painting deflates the emotional rhetoric and imagery of anti-abortion campaigns, both as bloody dismemberment and sanitized sentimentality. If in 2006 America had become a simulacral theme park in the form of Berlant’s “fantasy national culture” of child and fetus, then Ryden’s provides its official history painting, literally cut down to size. 

Allison Morehead, Associate Professor of Art History, Queen’s University 

Edvard Munch and the “Great Cause”: Abortion, Eugenics, and White Saviourism 

Prefacing a 1990 exhibition catalogue, a prominent American collector wrote of the “extraordinary contrasts” stemming from her twin passions for the work of Edvard Munch and the “population field.” These disparate activities, she observed, enabled her to go directly from an audience with Norwegian royalty to a Kenyan village, where she was greeted by women in “bright skirts and turbans…singing and dancing as they came along the road.” Hearing the words, “family planning, family planning,” she knew her “mission was understood!”  

This passage condenses thirty years of passionate collecting of Munch matched only by the collector’s life-long dedication to what her father, Clarence Gamble, called the “Great Cause”: the work of Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and Pathfinder International, an organization founded by Gamble that has only recently begun reckoning with his eugenicist and racist beliefs. 

Something is elided in the collector’s view of her passions as “contrasting,” for the work of Munch, including her collection’s centrepiece, Madonna, often thematizes abortion, infanticide, and sexually transmitted disease in a complex dialogue with first-wave feminism’s calls for reproductive rights. This paper situates Munch’s abortion-themed work (Madonna, Inheritance, Foster Mothers in Court), first in the context of Norway’s early twentieth-century abortion debates and then in relation to the spectre of eugenics controversially raised in footnote 41 of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The paper ultimately considers how a collector’s view of Munch as “an artist for all people of any age, sex, era, or country!” might function as part of a white saviourist “rhetoric of human communality,” a cover for the work of “population control.”  

Márcia Oliveira, Assistant Researcher, Center of Humanistic Studies, University of Minho, Portugal 

Embodiment, power and political engagement: the case of Paula Rego’s Abortion series 

In the 2016 film Secrets and Stories, director Nick Willing shows an engaging and touching portrait of his mother’s – painter Paula Rego (1935-2022) – life, work, and battles. With her candid and sometimes unsettling testimonies, as if she was in a private conversation with her son, she gives us not just a novel insight into her work, but also a path to navigate among its many complexities. At a certain point, she says, “I had many abortions. […] In those days we didn’t have much contraception and men just didn’t care”. Her own personal experience thus narrated, as well as her concern with women from the lower classes in Portugal that undergone backstreet abortions in unimaginable conditions, takes us back to her 1998 pastel series on abortion with a renewed interest. This series was made by the artist as a response to the referendum to legalize abortion that was held in Portugal, in 1998. By then, Portuguese society was torn between responding yes or no to the question: “Do you agree with the decriminalization of the voluntary interruption of the pregnancy (…)?”. After a heated national debate, 50,91% voted No; 49,09% voted Yes. Paula Rego was angry, and reacted against the result of the scrutiny through painting, for, as she says, ‘all I can do is paint; it is the only power I have’ (Oliveira 2005). In this paper, I look at these works by Paula Rego to reflect not just on the Portuguese context in relation to abortion, but also to consider the many ways women’s bodies continued, and continue to be one of the main sites where power, and particularly patriarchal power, is wielded.  

Maryanne Saunders, Access and Career Development Fellow, Lincoln College, University of Oxford 

 “Our Lady, or Yours?”: The Image of the Virgin Mary in Abortion Activism 

In this paper, I will reflect on the enduring presence of the image of the Virgin Mary in art about abortion. I will demonstrate, with close attention to the artworks and images, how the figure of the Virgin is utilized by those campaigning for safe and legal abortion as well as those who fall under the umbrella of ‘pro-life’, particularly those citing religious concerns. Widely available visual depictions of Mary in anti-abortion prayers, posters and campaigns tend to be colourful, softly focused, recognisable, and designed to lend legitimacy to the author’s arguments against abortion on religious and moral grounds. The weaponization of the most prominent woman in Christianity against the body autonomy of those potentially seeking abortions should not be underestimated. In opposition to such usage are art works such as Sylvia Lucero’s María Feminista/ Virgen Abortera (2019), Rachel Fallon’s the judgement of clytemnestra & mary (inside) (2016) and Paula Rego’s Untitled Abortion Pastels (1998-9), where the Virgin is depicted explicitly or implicitly as a powerful symbol of women’s contested power over their own bodies and futures. By recontextualizing figurines, iconography and other Marian tropes, the aforementioned artists utilize the potent image of the Virgin to resist the intellectual and religious appropriation of Mary and the annunciation story to suit their ideological and political ends. Starting with the artworks themselves, this paper will ask how religious imagery can, and has been reclaimed in contemporary pro-choice activism. 

Johanna Gosse, Assistant Professor of Art History & Visual Culture, University of Idaho 

Rhetoric, Violence, and the Back-Alley Abortion: Edward Kienholz’s Pro-Choice Tableaux, Before and After Roe 

My paper focuses on a series of pro-choice art works by the American artist Edward Kienholz—specifically two major “tableaux” he produced pre-Roe, The Illegal Operation (1962) and The Commercial #2 (1971-1973)—and contextualizes these works against the politics of Cold War American masculinity in the decade immediately pre-Roe. Kienholz’s biography, including his roots in a highly conservative, Christian inland Northwest; his (fourth) wife’s life-threatening experience procuring a back-alley abortion; and his five marriages and eventual sole custody of his two children, will all inform my analysis. Unflinchingly propagandistic, bloody, and crime-scene-like, Kienholz’s abortion tableaux depict the back-alley abortion with the same gratuitously voyeuristic gaze as the illicit sex and violence featured in his other major works of the period, Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964) and Five Car Stud (1969-1972). Kienholz’s reframing of the relationship between abortion and violence operates rhetorically, proposing political alternatives that are newly resonant today. More broadly, these works offer an opportunity to consider what male allyship and solidarity for women’s reproductive rights has, and potentially could, look like. In addition to analyzing, historicizing, and contextualizing these works, my presentation will attempt to think through what it means to teach Kienholz, arguably Idaho’s most prominent artist, in the context of the state’s flagship university, the University of Idaho, where I currently teach, at a moment when abortion is more criminalized, and more “unspeakable,” than it was sixty years ago. The debates around abortion in my state and on my campus center on speech and representation—on discourse rather than access (which was already severely limited)—raising key art historical questions about our discipline’s critical traction when practiced in hostile and reactionary political environments.   

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