Weapon of Choice

Wendy Vogel on art and abortion

Viva Ruiz, Thank God for Abortion, Pride, 2019, vinyl installation. 79 1/2 x 53''.

A DECADE AGO, while living in Houston, Texas, I volunteered as a patient escort at the city’s Planned Parenthood downtown office. Then located on a busy street, the reproductive-care clinic’s public location attracted a diverse cross-section of the anti-choice movement. The scenes outside the office ranged from the bizarre to the ghoulish. In a modern interpretation of the Battle of Jericho, one man circled the building seven times every afternoon and blew on a shofar, in hopes that the clinic would crumble to the ground. Busloads of students from religious high schools in Houston’s conservative suburbs would file out in front of Planned Parenthood with red tape across their lips, symbolizing the silencing of unborn fetuses. Other protestors adopted a twisted logic where anti-choice politics met anti-racist lip service. A white woman would approach African American clients with a pamphlet about the connection between birth control and eugenics. “Did you know the most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb?” she would yell.  

At the time, Planned Parenthood Houston was in the midst of constructing a new clinic, double the size of the downtown location, to better serve the city’s population of two million (now more than 2.3 million). In January 2010, thousands of anti-choicers organized a protest at the new clinic site, pejoratively dubbed by the movement an “abortion supercenter.” Police corralled counterprotestors—myself and a few dozen others—into tighter and tighter quarters on the sidewalk across the street. Though the new clinic’s opening was assured, I could not help feeling outnumbered. As we drove away that afternoon, I spotted a stone-faced man perched on the side of I-45 in a lawn chair, holding a pitchfork with baby doll parts stuck through each of its spikes.

I’ve never forgotten the vehement imagery of these protestors. By contrast, contemporary art has been reluctant to address the subject of abortion in such direct terms, until recently. In 2015, journalists and bloggers launched the online campaign #ShoutYourAbortion, which encouraged social media users and artists alike to share their experiences with reproductive choice. In 2018, artist Barbara Zucker curated the open-call exhibition “Currents: Abortion” at AIR, the cooperative feminist gallery in Brooklyn. Her press release articulated the connection between reproductive choice and human rights: “Abortion remains a signifier of women’s ownership over their bodies, being as urgent a subject as any of the issues that now consume us.” In the opening months of 2020, three exhibitions have framed abortion in no uncertain terms as a political, intersectional, and conceptual issue.

View of Laia Abril's “On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access" at the Museum of Sex, New York.

Through October 15, New York’s Museum of Sex hosts Barcelona-based artist Laia Abril’s exhibition “On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access.” One chapter of her larger project “A History of Misogyny,” “On Abortion” chronicles obstacles to reproductive choice in across the world. Abril employs a documentary mode common to conceptual art, drawing on the testimonies of individuals who were denied care. She pairs black-and-white photographic portraits of her subjects with typed statements and evidentiary images of their struggles, such as maps of their travels to neighboring countries for health care and photos of shadowy waiting rooms and plum pits (as one woman describes the size of her fetus). The subjects include Françoise, a septuagenarian Frenchwoman who performed five thousand clandestine abortions from the ’70s to the ’90s, to three Chinese women—identified by their initials ZWF, FJ, and GYLwhose abortions and sterilizations were forced upon them. Abril also uses the photographic grid format to depict the desperate measures people have taken to end pregnancy throughout history, from herbal mixtures to the coat hanger method. Alongside Abril's work, curator Lissa Rivera exhibits birth-control artifacts from the Museum of Sex holdings and gynecological tools from the Burns Archive, a private collection in Manhattan devoted to medical photography and objects from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The sober nature of Abril’s exhibition sharply contrasts with the spectacular format of the MoSex shows directly above and below hers—on webcam models and fin de siècle stag films, respectively. Still, on a recent busy Friday night at the museum, “On Abortion” invited quiet contemplation from a busy crowd.

In January and February, the two-part show “Abortion Is Normal” was mounted at the downtown galleries Eva Presenhuber and Arsenal Contemporary Art. Conceived as a fundraiser for Downtown for Democracy, a liberal super PAC, the show donated its proceeds to Planned Parenthood and efforts to support voter education on reproductive rights. Curated by Project for Empty Space Newark cofounders Rebecca Pauline Jampol and Jasmine Wahi and co-organized by Marilyn Minter, Gina Nanni, Laurie Simmons, and Sandy Tait, the show brought together over fifty diverse artists—several with blue-chip appeal, like Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman. While the title polemically defined reproductive rights as normal healthcare, the works on view approached bodily and sexual autonomy in various ways, oscillating in attitude between anger, celebration, and grief. Carrie Mae Weems’s photograph The Broken, See Duchamp, 2012–16, depicts the artist in a spread-eagled posture reminiscent of Etant donnés; Hayv Kahraman’s paintings of fair-skinned, dark-haired women, punctuated with woven bits of canvas, suggest the fracturing and mending potentials of art in the wake of traumas related to sexual violation and migration. Jane Kaplowitz’s painted portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg lionize the Supreme Court Justice, while Jon Kessler’s multimedia collage Birmingham, 2019, mourns the victims of the 1998 bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic by the terrorist Eric Rudolph.

One of the few works rooted in activism, Viva Ruiz’s performance project Thank God for Abortion received prime real estate in both iterations of the show. Ruiz’s work takes an intersectional approach to abortion rights, positing reproductive freedom as an issue aligned with queer rights and the autonomy of non-white people. Ruiz regularly participates in Pride parades and protests wearing saintly regalia, spreading her message about guilt-free, god-approved abortion. Likewise, Elektra KB’s photo-dominant installation Radical Family Structures of Care and Mutual Aid Mutual Aid for Cyborgs and Goddesses, 2020, documents queer and trans individual’s reproductive health choices. One of the most visceral works in “Abortion Is Normal,” Christen Clifford’s installation I Want Your Blood, 2013–20, displays menstrual fluid donated by various participants, which the artist decanted into tiny vintage perfume vials. Clifford seeks to undo the stigma attached to menstruation, which is linked to fears and taboos around miscarriage and abortion. “There’s no equality without reproductive rights,” she has said. “There’s no reproductive rights without knowledge of the female body, and there’s no knowledge of the female body without knowledge of blood.” If most of the work in “Abortion is Normal” hewed more closely to the conventions of the white cube gallery, this did not diminish its efficacy. The show pointed to the wide-ranging implications of healthcare restrictions while garnering crowds, press attention, and money for political causes.

Hayv Kahraman, Barricade 1, 2018, oil on linen, 50 x 78 x 3''.

While Clifford’s work suggests we honor the products of the female reproductive system, Aliza Shvarts’s solo exhibition “Purported” explores the polarizing reactions provoked by evidence of self-administered abortion. On view at Art in General in Brooklyn through May 9, the show features video documentation of the artist’s notorious 2008 Yale University undergraduate thesis project for which, over the course of an academic year, she allegedly inseminated herself monthly, then checked into a hotel to ingest abortifacient drugs, after which time she would cramp and bleed. As the exhibition brochure describes it, “This bleeding could have been either a normal period or a very early-stage self-induced miscarriage—the work was intentionally crafted so that not even Shvarts knew which.” At the time of its making, Shvarts intended for her Untitled [Senior Thesis Project] to include a sculptural cube wrapped in a lining of her own blood, as well as video documentation. The work caused a firestorm of controversy online and was subsequently censored by Yale. A spokesperson for the school declared the project a “creative fiction” to the press, claiming that no human blood was used—presumably to shield the school from further negative attention. The school asked Shvarts to sign a statement agreeing that her work was a fiction. She refused and submitted an alternative senior project. The artist’s subsequent work has explored how individuals from historically marginalized groups have had their life experiences reduced to “fiction,” with physical evidence like rape kits (which she has attempted to gather and display from all fifty US states) overriding their spoken testimony.

These shows arrive at a moment of growing legal momentum to obstruct rights to abortion access. Last week, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo was heard in the US Supreme Court. The case concerns the constitutionality of a Louisiana state law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at hospitals within thirty miles of the clinic. It represents the first case of its kind to be heard since Trump appointed conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the bench, threatening to overturn the precedent of a 2016 ruling, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which had declared a similar law in Texas unconstitutional and an “undue burden” to people seeking abortion access. If this case proceeds differently, it could unravel the protections of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision—which ultimately defended abortion access on the basis of privacy.

This new burst of interest in art about reproductive freedom shifts the discussion from privacy, even choice, to defend and normalize reproductive health care for all bodies. The political rhetoric of keeping abortions “safe, legal, and rare”—a phrase made popular by President Bill Clinton in the ’90s—feels out of step with today’s leftist politics. Although the ethical debates about where and when life begins may never subside, artists are shifting the narrative about abortion from a secret, sin, or painstaking choice to an issue of bodily autonomy—an issue that affects all genders and sexualities.

Wendy Vogel is a Brooklyn-based writer and curator.