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Telling the Brutal Story of Abortion Bans Around the World

Through interviews with women who have been forced to self-abort, artist Laia Abril explores the violent history—and present—of restricting women's reproductive rights.
June 1, 2016, 6:30pm
All images courtesy of the artist

In Laia Abril's latest project, a delicate phallus, gently accessorized with a ribbon, sits uneasily next to a rack of metal spikes and forceps. You'd assume something had gotten a bit Lorena Bobbitt. But it's through these disarming juxtapositions that the Barcelona-based artist explores abortion access across the world, now and historically.

On Abortion, which opens next month in exhibition form and will be published as a book in 2017, presents Abril's visual reconstructions of the tools and harrowing techniques that women have used to perform abortions when legal and safe access to reproductive care is denied. These sculptural works—from forceps to primitive vacuum devices, cervical needles, and cross sections of a woman's abdomen—sit alongside photographic portraits of women who've died following back-alley abortions, and audio installation pieces created using the voices of women Abril has interviewed about their experiences. The show's conceptual aspects are balanced by a thorough, research-led process. Abril's journalistic background is reflected in the text-based pieces that provide context and narrative throughout the exhibition. Here, it's about telling deeply personal stories over sensationalism.


According to Abril's research, "47,000 women die due to botched abortions" each year. Though modern medicine has allowed the procedure to be as safe and simple as taking a pill, religious, societal, and governmental bans make unsafe alternatives the only option for some women. On Abortion confronts these unnecessary dangers and deaths, and forms part of Abril's wider, ongoing project on the systems that limit women's rights, A History of Misogyny.

Broadly caught up with the artist to talk through her hard-hitting approach to art.

BROADLY: How have you arranged the exhibition? What media and materials did you use, and how did you choose them?
Laia Abril: My methodology is based in conceptual, visual, and narrative research. As I'm unable to document every country in the world, I tried to cover as many possible consequences and scenarios that women face. I approached different societies, victims, and contexts as a collection of visual, audio, and textual evidences. In this way, I'm trying to weave a net of questions about ethics and morality and reveal a staggering series of social triggers, stigmas, and taboos around abortion that have been invisible until now.

In the exhibition, you can find personal stories of survivors narrated in the form of photo novels and portraits; reconstructed scenarios of different kinds of repercussions [for having an abortion]; historical objects used to abort; historical and current DIY methods used by women; mugshots of doctors and criminalized women; mugshots of women who died through butchered abortions or the lack of access to it; and audio installations of pro-life terrorism or confessions.

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In my projects, text has and strong presence. In this one in particular, I would say it is 50 percent of it. Although it is a visually-based project, there is a strong need of context and information to be able to read the pieces.

Marta, 29, PolandOn January 2, 2015, I traveled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, serious fetal deformation, or threat to the mother's life.] I was too scared to take DIY pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn't tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.

Why did you decide to focus on abortion?
Forced motherhood has historically curtailed women's freedom and their development in society. In general, anything related to a woman's decisions about reproduction and sexuality has been always surrounded by strong stigmas and taboos. For instance, this year, for the first time in history, the Pope has allowed Catholic women who've aborted to be forgiven. While this may seem like a step forward, it perpetuates the stigma of guilt that surrounds women's choices, since [the Catholic church] sees it as a sin. They see abortion as murder. In the meantime, politicians exploit abortion as campaign currency; they make reproductive issues a political matter, rather than a question of rights.

I decided to focus on the extreme situations where women's lack of access forces them to make risky decisions, jeopardizing their health and freedom: women who procure DIY abortions or submit to illegal, butchered abortions; minors and rape victims; women who are forced to carry pregnancies; and women who are dying from being denied medical treatment.

I'm a white, educated, privileged woman, who happens to live in a country where abortion is legal. But it is a right that was not always there and which is constantly at risk. Recently in Spain, they tried to modify the law. You're never 100 percent safe. When we're in a privileged situation we have a tendency to think this is a problem far away from us, and it's not. I approach the project from a historical point of view for the same reason: we tend to think these are problems from the past.

Lack of access [to abortion] isn't just down to legalities. We forget about [physical] access and money. In Italy, abortion is legal for up to 90 days of pregnancy. But some hospitals [are completely staffed] with doctors who are conscientious objectors, forcing women to travel abroad for a termination. India has some of Asia's most progressive abortion laws that permit pregnancy termination during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, but that does not guarantee access to safe abortion services, especially in rural areas. In 2013, a woman died every two hours in India due to unsafe, unsanitary, or DIY abortions. Also stigma [against abortion] can be so strong, even in countries where abortion is legal, that women jeopardize their health.

What was your research process like?
This has been so far the most difficult project I have done. My previous five-year, long-term project, On Eating Disorders, was hard to approach for many reasons. The stigma and taboo around mental diseases and especially eating disorders made it hard to access certain stories. In this case, the illegality made everything much more complicated. I've been calling doctors every day for more than seven months just to have some data. I approached hundreds of women, hundreds of NGOs, and I've never struggled so much to have even just anonymous testimonies. It makes sense as it's dangerous for them [to speak out.] They face rejection from society and their families; they could lose their freedom or even their life. The story of Alicja in Poland comes to mind. She was denied an abortion years ago, even though she could lose her sight [from giving birth]. She won the international trial, but during the last decade she has struggled with daily society judgment. Even her children have a different last name, and sometimes they have to do homework about their mother's case!

But women who I approached, whether they're willing to participate or not, were always very receptive to the project, even though many of them had have very bad experience with sensationalistic media in the past. Women who I collaborated with or portrayed are happy that I don't victimize or judge them. They are survivors of obstetric and systemic violence but they are not ashamed to have aborted, they are proud of having the maturity to exercise their rights.

What do you hope people will get from seeing your work, in the exhibition and in the book?
By constructing this kind of installation you face a great amount of challenges. You need to balance the information, emotion, and visual creativity for such an uncomfortable and controversial topic so people can question their own beliefs.

Abortion is often hidden: in the past, in shadows, in illegality. Many women don't want to be visible, and doctors can't share too much information. Nobody wants to talk because it's surrounded by shame and stigma. It's a sin. For me, trying to visualize the invisible is a great challenge. My only hope is to make people face an issue they don't know about or never thought about, and help them to empathize with personal stories.

The installation and the book have different narratives and displays though the content is mostly shared. Now that I'm working on the book, I'll be able to create storylines that exhibitions do not allow me. Installation art creates an experience for the visitor, which can connect with their beliefs on a different level.