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A Searing Exhibition Charts the History of Abortion

Through photographs, historical documents, and recent interviews, Laia Abril presents the case that abortion is here to stay, whether it’s legal or not.

By Russet Lederman

Françoise, 76, is known as the grandmother of modern abortion in Europe. She describes her lifelong activism as a calling, with the personal motto, “When you have power, you also have a responsibility.” Vintage image from Laia Abril: On Abortion, 2020
Courtesy the artist

A friend’s text message popped up on a thread that covered everything from family to work to the usual mundane news we frequently share with one another. She was pregnant. It was unplanned, and she and her partner had made the decision to terminate the pregnancy through a “medication abortion” (aka abortion pills). She is one of the lucky ones. She lives in a city, a state, and a country where abortion is legal and accessible; has a partner who is supportive; health insurance that would cover a portion of the cost; and a private doctor who would handle the prescription with care and confidentiality. Yet despite her access and support, making the decision, undergoing the procedure, and dealing with the aftermath of an abortion was, and will always be, traumatic. Add to that the obstacles in states that have enacted bans and stringent abortion restrictions both before and since the COVID-19 pandemic—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming—and a difficult personal decision is egregiously turned into a political issue with often tragic consequences.

Installation view of Laia Abril—On Abortion, Museum of Sex, New York, 2020
Photograph by Kris Graves

In Laia Abril’s exhibition On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access, the debate over abortion is center stage. Through historical documents, medical publications, gynecological tools, personal stories, and news and police reports, Abril confronts the misogynistic horrors that befall our society when women are denied access to affordable and safe abortions.

A long-term project presented as a book and series of exhibitions, On Abortion is the first chapter in her ongoing A History of Misogyny series. It is a project I’ve been following since I first saw an earlier installation at Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France, in 2016. Both then and now, I left the exhibition with the feeling that my head was about to explode. Reading, hearing, and seeing the personal stories of condemned, criminalized, and in extreme cases, dead women in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Ireland, Poland, and the United States—who had no other choice but to seek an illegal abortion due to rape, incest, or a medical condition that put their lives at risk—is an unbearable experience. Yet, it is an experience and a discussion that needs to be had by any society that sees itself as humane.

Installation view of Laia Abril—On Abortion, Museum of Sex, New York, 2020
Photograph by Kris Graves

In selecting New York’s Museum of Sex (now temporarily closed due to the coronavirus crisis) as the venue for the U.S. premiere of On Abortion, Abril has done more than just share her work. She has consciously chosen to place this discussion within a context that reaches beyond the art world and engages a diverse audience that may have no interest in art, but does in sexuality and the partisan discourse on abortion. Within this setting, Abril makes abundantly clear that abortion is unequivocally linked to sex and that the only way to depoliticize, decriminalize, and liberate the right to a difficult private decision is to make visible the factual evidence and tragic outcomes that have harmed women when abortion is denied or limited. As long as women have sex, abortion will remain an experience shared by millions of women around the world. Despite the efforts of religious groups and antiabortion crusaders, abortion is here to stay, whether legal or not.

The Museum of Sex deserves credit for a respectful restraint in the exhibition design of On Abortion. It is not their norm. Unlike the three other shows at the museum—Superfunland: Journey into the Erotic Carnival, Cam Life, and Stag: The Illicit Origins of Pornographic Film—the installation of On Abortion is thoughtful and befitting the subject. Entering the exhibition, the viewer encounters a space that combines wall-mounted photographs, poster-size news clippings, illustrations, a circa-1890s OB-GYN exam table, and books and antique medical instruments (from the Burns Archive and Collection) displayed in a traditional Americana-style vitrine. A wall text by abortion historian Linda Greenhouse reads like a treatise for action: “Instead of stigma and silence, we need to raise our voices and lift our sights, as this fascinating exhibit by a brilliant young artist inspires us to do. Abortion is a word. It is also a right we must fight for.”

Installation view of Laia Abril—On Abortion, Museum of Sex, New York, 2020
Photograph by Kris Graves

It is a contemplative exhibition that requires not just looking, but close reading and listening. Illustrations and photographs of early contraception (fish-bladder condoms, vaginal douches, and soap or enema syringes) along with pregnancy termination devices (knitting needles, wood and plastic rods) lead the way to more graphic and personal stories that caption black-and-white photographs of the women who have performed, sought, or been accused of having illegal abortions, and the spaces where their terminated pregnancies occurred. Sometimes their eyes are pixilated, their faces presented as photographic negatives or blurred, but most of the time they stare straight ahead, fixing the viewer in their gazes. Reading their stories on the wall texts or typed notes that accompany their photographs is wrenching. Whether it is the two-year prison sentence given to an Indiana woman who left her stillborn fetus in a dumpster after using abortion pills ordered illegally online from a Hong Kong pharmacy, or the tale of a young Salvadoran woman who was sentenced to thirty years in prison for homicide after losing her wanted baby in her third trimester when her employer would not let her go home after passing out, Abril’s direct use of personal narrative is fearless.

Trained in journalism, Abril is a multidisciplinary artist whose projects are the result of years of in-depth research. The strength of On Abortion is its all-encompassing approach to its subject matter and the range of perspectives presented. Included with the personal stories of survivors are police records of antiabortion terrorists accompanied by their rhetoric—a disturbing voice mail recording received by an abortion clinic can be heard on a phone within the installation. Through the voices of victims, family members, advocates, providers, historians, and antiabortion protesters, Abril forces the visitor to confront the slow and steady erosion of women’s rights as they pertain to their own bodies.

Installation view of Laia Abril—On Abortion, Museum of Sex, New York, 2020
Photograph by Kris Graves

Discussion while viewing On Abortion is unavoidable. During my visit, I overheard a male teenager quietly telling his friends, “This shit is crazy tragic!” It is exactly this kind of response that is needed for a society to address the horrific repercussions that women must endure when safe and legal abortions are denied. And if we are to have this discussion across genders, races, religions, and nationalities, it is most fitting that Abril’s work should be seen in settings that draw audiences beyond the art world, such as the Museum of Sex—an space where both sex and abortion can be discussed by adults, teenagers, tourists, and others who wander past a gift shop filled with sex toys to encounter this enormously important exhibition.

Russet Lederman, a researcher and writer based in New York, is a cofounder of 10×10 Photobooks and The Gould Collection.

Laia Abril—On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access is now temporarily closed due to the coronavirus crisis, but is scheduled to be on view at the Museum of Sex, New York, through October 15, 2020.

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