Not so long-ago newspapers would carry advertisements aimed at those suffering from ‘female indispositions’, those peculiarly feminine ailments that could ‘consign many a fond mother to a premature grave’ if suitable ‘preparations’, the same powders and pills being advertised, were not purchased post-haste.
A selection of these clippings lines the interior cover of On Abortion, conceived as just one chapter in the ‘history of misogyny’ by Laia Abril, the Spanish photographer behind the project. Abril dispenses with the chemists’ deceitfully delicate language when introducing her work, one that is, she explains, inspired by the fact that ‘every year, 47,000 women around the world die due to botched illegal abortions’.
The consequences for individual women, their families, and society at large, caused by a lack of access to safe and legal reproductive health provision is the book’s main subject. Trained in journalism, Abril draws together the narratives of many different women – activists, abortion providers, and, most of all, those who have been denied the right to a safe and legal termination. It is their words that steer the photographer’s fundamentally artistic strategy of making visible that which can remain out of sight.
The book begins by looking at some of the man-made tools women have used to induce abortion. Some appear, reassuringly, like they’ve been lifted from the pages of medical history, like the sepia-tinted images of ‘thick-walled cylinders with plungers’; artfully arranged abstract shapes that look like pieces of an anatomical jigsaw puzzle. Used since the 1920s to flush the uterus with soapy liquid, they have cost many women their lives. Other objects appear far more commonplace, as well as more graphically dangerous. One page shows a plastic specimen box filled with simple wooden sticks. The ‘artefacts’ have been used to pierce the amniotic sac during pregnancy and were all surgically removed from the bodies of women in Kampala, Uganda, in 2002.
The book is difficult to take in in one go. Working through the pages left me feeling a little lightheaded at times, reading about women who have spent decades in prison after miscarrying, and a girl who, in 2015, became a mother at nine years-old after being raped by her own father. The child’s country of birth, Nicaragua, prohibits abortion under any circumstance. This appalling story is followed simply by two pages of empty black.
Like the ‘shock’ methods of inducing a miscarriage that have been passed down by generations of women, like being bitten by a dog, or teeth pulling without anaesthetic, On Abortion does not hesitate to lay bare the worst of the world’s crimes against women. Some of the most disturbing accounts relay the realities of state-sponsored abductions, forced abortions and sterilisation. Less grotesque but affecting for its pathos is a photograph of a Polish okno życia (‘window of life’): a door in the wall of a convent where mothers can anonymously deposit unwanted infants. Commonplace in the Middle Ages, the baby hatch has had a recent resurgence and around 200 new hatches were installed in European countries, including Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, between 2000 and 2012. The window shown here has a plastic frame and is double-glazed.
The traditional symbol used by pro-choice campaigners to illustrate the dangers of refusing a women’s request for a termination is the wire coat hanger. We see its ironic inclusion here in a section dedicated to the ‘visual war’ – blown-up images of aborted foetuses printed onto t-shirts, for instance – orchestrated by anti-abortion protesters against women who try to access abortion clinics. The bright white outline of its metal frame is illuminated against a smoky backdrop textured like human skin. The accompanying caption informs us this dangerous DIY method is seeing a resurgence in the United States as conservative lawmakers work to erode the country’s legal protections for female reproductive agency.
Abril’s approach is emotionally manipulative, certainly, but a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy is far from settled, and there are hearts and minds to be won. Rights compete, ideologies clash; banners, and memes, are made. Just last week I got caught up in London’s ‘March for Life’, a, in the words of the organisers, ‘mass annual rally for pro-lifers’, where banners that read Life from conception – No exception! repeated down Whitehall. The timing is not incidental, of course. On 25 May the Irish electorate will vote on whether they wish to retain the eighth amendment of the constitution which gives equal rights to the mother and her unborn child.
On Abortion couldn’t be more relevant at a moment when the question of who gets to have the final say on a woman’s reproductive life – including those who cannot be cast as victims, indisposed by circumstances outside of their control – is stated afresh. An answer can be found, however, in the words of one of the women interviewed by Abril, an activist described as the ‘grandmother of modern abortion in Europe’. ‘Once her decision is made, the rest must be very gentle – as easy as possible’.
– Reviewed by Rebecca Sykes
Below,’Knitting Needle Procedure’ and ‘Coat Hanger’ images from On Abortion © Laia Abril, Courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing.