Reactor

Art and the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 22, 2013

Frida Kahlo, "Henry Ford Hospital" (1932), oil on metal (image via dailyartwork.tumblr.com)

Frida Kahlo, “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932), oil on metal (image via dailyartwork.tumblr.com)

On January 22, 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in a 7–2 ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade. It’s been forty years since that decision, and although abortion remains legal, it’s no less controversial. In fact, it might be moreso these days, if the growing number of restrictions on the procedure throughout the country is any indication.

I’ve always felt that one of the biggest problems with the abortion discussion is that we don’t actually talk about the procedure. The unshakeable stigma that still surrounds it, combined with the heated political rhetoric that inevitably flares up and the conservatives who aren’t so keen on letting women speak about and for themselves, conspire to eclipse it. Abortion is practically a fighting word in this country, but how much does the average American know about the procedure, the pill, the experience — what happens and how it feels to have one? Abortion gets lost in the abortion debate.

This is where art enters the picture. Artworks are often created from personal experience, and while we wouldn’t look to a sculpture to get, say, a medical breakdown of how abortions work, art can convey emotions. It can create empathy and open up connections. It can put us in a different frame of mind.

Two different artworks come to my mind when I think about abortion. One, pictured above, is Frida Kahlo’s oil-on-metal self-portrait “Henry Ford Hospital,” painted in 1932. Kahlo’s experience actually began with a miscarriage, but complications led her to Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, where doctors had to perform an abortion to finish the termination of her pregnancy. She began working on the painting very soon afterwards, and it shows: The piece is an incredibly intense, emotional depiction of a woman who feels like her body is not her own.

Tracey Emin, "How It Feels" (1996), video still (image via whitecube.com)

Tracey Emin, “How It Feels” (1996), video still (image via whitecube.com)

The other piece is Tracey Emin’s “How It Feels,” a video from 1996 in which she describes what it feels like to have an abortion. The narration is very matter-of-fact, but also tender, and by showing Emin out in the city, smoking a cigarette or standing in a public park, it grounds abortion in the reality of everyday life and people. You can watch an interview in which Emin discusses “How It Feels,” interspersed with snippets from the video itself, on White Cube’s website.

I think both of these works go some way toward humanizing an issue that is, physically and emotionally, so very human and yet in the US continues to be discussed and legislated as an abstraction (mainly by men). The goal — or one of them, really — needs to be destigmatization and awareness. Imagine if every woman who had had an abortion bought one of these new n+1 “I had an abortion” tote bags and carried it around. I’m in no way saying they have to, mind you, or even that they should; I respect everyone’s right to both choice and privacy. But just imagine if they did. I think many people would be surprised at their numbers.

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