The leaked draft of the Supreme Court majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has spurred many of us to action. In the days and months ahead, those of us who believe in reproductive justice will be making our case in the streets, in the courts, and in the halls of legislative bodies. As we turn to this important work, it is crucial that we do not ignore a realm that has a fraught relationship to politics: the practice of art and its power to change us.
Like politics, art deals in representation. Images, colors, and symbols are crucial to any political movement. From the crossed-out wire coat hangers on buttons and protest ephemera of the 1960s and ’70s to the “green wave” of recent activism in Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico, the fight for reproductive justice has been no exception. The connection between art and abortion is perhaps even more profound, as both invoke a similar set of questions about agency, creation, and what our bodies are free to do.
To cite a few examples, works like Barbara Kruger’s image and text piece Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), 1989, remind us that the personal is political (recently updated for the cover of New York Magazine for a post-Roe America), while Viva Ruiz’s performance project Thank God for Abortion, 2015–, frames abortion as spiritual affirmation and basic healthcare while centering the activism of sex workers and women of color. 1 Others are social practice projects that creatively exploit legal loopholes, like Women on Waves, 2001–, which provides abortion services from a boat in international waters off the coasts of countries where abortion is illegal. 2
Across these varying strategies, we see artists exploring what art can do in the struggle for abortion. Art can make visible and bear witness to people and experiences that have historically been silenced or erased. It can create representations or spectacles that reframe the debate, demand action, or offer rituals for repair. Perhaps most importantly, art can be a realm that demonstrates how our capacity for action—moral action, solidarity, or self-determination—exceeds what is delimited by the law. Because art can do more than represent an experience, perspective, or idea: it can also be an alibi for meaningful experimentation, and a realm in which we can imagine and enact the world we want.
Abortion is a subject for which art can seem at once too frivolous and too volatile. This has everything to do with a fundamental contradiction that structures the way we understand the role of art in the Western tradition. On one hand, it is inconsequential, a “mere aesthetic” compared to the serious pursuits of law, medicine, government, and other discourses that shape our understanding of the world. On the other, it is all too consequential, even dangerous, and thus subject to censorship for its capacity to offend, corrupt, or lead us astray. This also has everything to do with the way we talk about abortion as “controversy” rather than policy, “trauma” rather than healthcare—as “choice” rather than abortion.
Since news of the leaked draft first broke, I have found myself rereading Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1963 poem “the mother.” 3 It opens with the stark line, “Abortions will not let you forget.” There are many ways to read the poem’s deep ambivalence, but what has always moved me is Brooks’s expert use of poetic form to describe the palpable yet conceptually ambiguous act of not giving birth. What is so poignant, even defiant, about the poem is that it makes art—powerful, provocative art—from abortion.
I first read this poem when I was making my own artwork about abortion, Untitled [Senior Thesis] (2008), which consisted of a yearlong performance of self-induced miscarriages using herbal abortifacients. The work caused national controversy, prompting the university to first issue a press release dismissing it as a “hoax,” and then ultimately censor the work from exhibition. Then, as now, I have asked myself what the experience of abortion and the practice of art can illuminate in each other.
Abortion and art have something fundamentally in common. Just as “art” is a broad term applied to a wide set of contradictory practices that span different disciplines, media, genres, and purposes, “abortion” describes a range of bodily experiences from self-management to medical interventions. How we define and delimit either is not really a formal question, but an ideological one. Making art about abortion allows us to do more than amplify the current political struggle. It allows us to parse the formal and ideological grammar through which political meaning gets made.
What abortions will not let us forget is the difficulty and power of bringing the experience of the body into language and representation that feel like your own—despite the stark contradiction of that bodily experience being irreducibly and profoundly personal. Abortions will not let us forget that there remains an urgent need for both aesthetic and political representations not yet at hand. This is the work of artists. We must not only mark this moment in time, but also continue to do what we are trained to do: find new ways to represent the world, our experiences, and ourselves that push up against the very edge of legibility. At this edge of legibility, we can find new language, frameworks, and tools.
If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade as outlined in the leaked majority opinion, almost half the country will risk losing access to abortion. Even in the absence of such a disastrous intervention by the judiciary, a growing body of state restrictions have already effectively rendered millions in the US without abortion access. As we organize to confront this threat to reproductive justice, we cannot forget the power of art. For art is the practice of forging new forms of representation, rehearsing new ways of being, and, under the cover of its seeming insignificance, provisionally claiming freedoms otherwise denied.