Things have been pretty hectic lately for the folks who work and study in Lane Hall, the small, historic building at the far end of University of Michigan’s central campus. Over the past two months the building that houses the Women’s Studies Department and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) has been the target of anti-choice protesters. Lane Hall has been peppered with anti-choice leaflets, the main entry steps have been vandalized with chalk, and protesters have picketed the sidewalks in front of the building. Staff in Lane Hall have also been fielding phone calls from angry activists, alumni, and others. As Debra M. Schwartz, senior public relations representative for IRWG told me recently, “Some of us in Lane Hall and a few other university offices have been distracted from our routine work. But, in general, the protest has scarcely been noticed on campus. It feels like a tempest in a teapot.”
At the heart of the storm is a small art exhibit on display in the lobby of Lane Hall. In January of 2014, IRWG and the Women’s Studies Department, along with support from the University’s Program for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Justice, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, co-sponsored the installation of “4,000 Years for Choice” an exhibit by award-winning artist, researcher, and activist, Heather Ault. IRWG also hosted a small reception for Ault in January, giving students, faculty, and the public a chance to discuss her work as both an artist and activist.
The exhibit itself is comprised of two sections. The first half, “4,000 Years for Choice” is a set of brightly colored posters that explore the long history of contraception and abortion throughout the world. Ault’s posters present images and texts detailing the variety of methods by which women have historically controlled their fertility – from abortive herbs, to contraceptive devices, to family planning, to modern-day surgical abortions. The posters also include quotes on reproductive control from notable historic figures such as Plato, Casanova, Emma Goldman, and Madame Restelle. For example, in one bright, lime green poster, Ault documents the work of Soranus, an ancient Greek physician who advocated the use of the silphium plant as both a contraceptive and an abortifacient. The exhibit also documents how organized religions – Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity – have all shared an interest in reproductive health. In one poster, Ault discusses the Catholic Church’s embrace of the rhythm method. The posters effectively demonstrate that efforts to understand and control reproduction have existed across time and space and that this endeavor is far from a modern-day phenomenon.
Ault does, however, bring visitors full circle and back into the present with the second-half of the installation, “Reproductive Roots.” In a set of small postcard-like pieces, Ault visually documents inspiring and positive quotations and messages about reproductive freedom from celebrities, politicians, health care providers, activists, and everyday women. Cards depict slogans like “Live by Choice, Not by Chance,” “Let’s Trust Women,” “Good Women Have Abortions,” and “I am Thankful to Have a Choice.”
On the surface, the goal of “4,000 Years for Choice” is quite clear: Ault seeks to historicize and globalize women’s experiences of abortion, contraception, and other methods of fertility control by demonstrating how personal decisions about reproduction and the body have been around for, well, as long as humans have been around. Through her art, Ault wants to educate people about this long history, regardless of whether their own political “position” is pro-choice, pro-life, or somewhere in-between. Ault states, “Without knowledge of this history, we as Americans cannot fully understand women’s deeply ingrained desire to control pregnancies for the good of ourselves, our relationships, and our families. Without this knowledge, we are in the dark.”
But there is another goal to the exhibit, one that I think is at the heart of the negative attention that the exhibit is receiving from anti-choice groups. Ault is attempting to fundamentally change the direction of our current conversation about abortion. Through her art, Ault is calling on pro-choice activists to disengage from this intractable battle between “us” and “them,” and instead focus on the positivity and power we have collectively as a group. Ault herself argues that it is time to “replace the iconic ‘wire coat hanger’ used by the pro-choice movement . . . with positive words, such as ‘love, embrace, bless, sing, and celebrate.’”
To Ault, the problem with framing the abortion issue as a “War on Women,” is that when we use war-like language, we get war-like responses, which create distinct, yet arbitrary lines in the sand that have proven over time to be immoveable. Ault argues that pro-choice activists’ time and effort should instead be spent on encouraging women to speak openly, celebrate choice, and “focus on the inherent goodness in every woman’s reproductive journey.” In other words, Ault’s work seeks to destigmatize abortion by presenting it as one of several reproductive options that women have been engaging in for centuries.
Ault’s work is part of a growing trend of women working to normalize abortion as a legitimate choice in a woman’s reproductive life. In 2012, reproductive health advocate, Steph Herold, spearheaded a Tumblr project called I Had An Abortion, which collects stories about abortion experiences. In 2013, Advocates for Youth (AFY) began their “1 in 3 Campaign,” which encourages women to share their personal abortion stories. The campaign is so named because roughly one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And earlier this month patient advocate, Emily Letts, filmed her own abortion procedure to make an important statement about choice and the construction of guilt. In an essay to Cosmopolitan, Letts writes:
Our society breeds this guilt. We inhale it from all directions. Even women who come to the clinic completely solid in their decision to have an abortion say they feel guilty for not feeling guilty . . . they pressure themselves to feel bad about it.
Letts admitted that though she feels a little bit embarrassed and irresponsible for not using birth control, she does not feel any guilt for making the decision to not carry out an unwanted pregnancy. She writes that she was thankful and grateful for the ability to make an informed choice in a tough spot and that she has learned an important lesson. She is happy, not guilty.
What people like Ault and Letts are doing has the potential to be revolutionary. What if we decided not to be ashamed of our reproductive choices? What if we trusted women to make informed choices about their bodies? What if abortion was not a dirty or whispered word, even among those who self-identify as pro-choice? What if we actually celebrated the fact that we have the option of abortion as one of several ways in which we control fertility?
If you doubt how powerful the idea of destigamtizing abortion can be, the people protesting Ault’s exhibit at the University of Michigan certainly recognize its potential. While the exhibit attracted little attention for the first few months, in late-March an article appeared on the conservative website, The College Fix, criticizing the installation for “defending and glamorizing the history of abortion.” The article also caught the attention of the feminist website, Jezebel, which published a counter piece in support of the exhibit.
Following the publication of both the College Fix article and the Jezebel article, several pro-life publications have published a flurry of articles about the exhibit. Since then, the exhibit itself has been papered with anti-choice leaflets, protesters have picketed outside of Lane Hall, and the steps of the building have been defaced with chalked messages that equate abortion with rape. The office of University of Michigan’s outgoing president, Mary Sue Coleman, has received over 400 emails and “scores of phone calls.” The IRWG office has also been inundated with angry phone calls, and Schwartz says the majority of callers seem to be working from the same talking points. She also reports that she received a phone call from a “student” at Johns Hopkins University, purportedly interested in bringing the exhibit to her campus. The student, it turns out, was actually Tina Whittington, Assistant Director of Students for Life. This duplicitous conversation, which included Schwartz’s comments about the exhibit’s cost, reappeared later on a different pro-life website.
Certainly this is not the first time a university campus has had an exhibit, a lecture, a class, a workshop, a play, a brownbag, or even a discussion about the history of reproductive choice, contraception, and yes, even abortion. So why is this small exhibit housed within the Women’s Studies building, a department home to a largely pro-choice audience, creating such a firestorm within the pro-life community?
I think it’s because they are nervous.
Anti-abortion activists may not have succeeded in repealing Roe v. Wade (yet), but for the past thirty years they have done a fantastic job in shaming women into secrecy. They have succeeded in making women feel guilty about the choices they make about their bodies, and they have made it culturally and socially acceptable (and even expected) that women hide their abortion experiences from friends, family, and the public. If people like Ault and Letts succeed, and women are no longer scared or intimidated to talk about the wide variety of abortion experiences, what does that mean for the future of the pro-life movement? If women out there feel empowered to talk about their experiences, and we support and love them with open arms, well, then abortion becomes what it actually already is . . . normal.
The exhibit, “4,000 Years for Choice” will be in Lane Hall at the University of Michigan until this Friday, May 29th. If you are anywhere near the Ann Arbor area, I encourage you to stop in and see it.
For Further Reading:
May, Elaine Tyler. America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Prescott, Heather Munro. The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Schoen, Johanna. Choice & Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Solinger, Rickie. Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950-2000. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1998
Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.