Deadly Risk

Unsafe abortions through the ages

01 November 2017
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IN AN IMAGE captured by the Spanish artist Laia Abril, a white coat-hanger is pictured against a grey background. While it might appear to be an innocuous household object, the coat-hanger is a frequently used symbol for self-induced abortions, conducted by inserting the metal wire up the cervix and damaging the foetus.

For the first showing of Abril’s work On Abortion, in 2016, at a photography festival in Arles, France, she transformed the clinical two-dimensionality of this photograph into a disturbing multisensory experience. A dense pile of mangled coat-hangers lay in the centre of a room, assuming an almost sculpture-like quality. Viewers encountered the coat-hangers repeatedly while exploring the exhibition, their menacing pointed ends serving as a reminder of the danger that women face if they are forced to have unsafe abortions.

On Abortion, which examines the repercussions of this lack of access to safe and legal abortions, is the first chapter in Abril’s ongoing, long-term project A History of Misogyny. It includes video, photography, text and sound—she described it as a “conceptual umbrella under which various chapters will be treated in a different manner.” Other series for the project explore similar issues relating to gender, sexuality and health: Menstruation Myths, which will lead into a chapter titled On Hysteria, examines how taboos surrounding menstruation influence young girls, and Las 17 focussed on 17 women serving sentences on charges of abortion and murder in El Salvador.

On Abortion expands the definition of the “image” in photographic work with its broad range of visual material. Apart from Abril’s own photography, which alternates between studio still-life, documentary reportage and constructed images, it includes found photographs, ultrasound images, posters of pro-life religious propaganda, copies of advertisements publicising abortion services, and US Federal Bureau of Investigation advertisements, from 1999 and 2001, for the arrest of anti-abortion extremists. Abril moulded the form of her material according to the demands of publication spaces. For instance, in her exhibition, she included sound installations such as a voicemail recording of pro-life campaigners harassing employees at an abortion clinic in the United States. She also incorporated a staged confession of an abortion from the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy—a year-long period of prayer for Roman Catholics starting in 2015, when, according to Pope Francis, priests across the world had the “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion” women who sought forgiveness for it. The confession was transcribed for the book version of Abril’s project, which is due to be launched in November at the Paris Photo Fair.

Abril visited several countries, including El Salvador, Spain and the Netherlands, and interviewed women who had had unsafe abortions, although some of them did not want their identities revealed. She photographed one section of On Abortion at the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna, Austria, where she captured objects historically used for abortion and contraception against a plain background. The resulting collection is telling of the fact that the manifold dangers facing women who are denied safe abortions have been present throughout history. For Abril, demonstrating the passage of time was integral to the project, to show that though abortion methods may have changed, the degree of risk remains the same, and, in some cases, has worsened. There is little reassurance, she explained, in the thought that “what was before was worst, and we will be safe from here on.”

Recording acts—such as swallowing a pill—that do not lend themselves easily to being captured on a camera, because they are fleeting, or often done in secret, is a somewhat paradoxical excercise. Abril said that attempting to visualise the invisible—“invisible because it is hidden, or in the past, or taboo, or psychological”—is an undertaking common to many of her projects. She used various techniques of reconstruction to overcome the drawback of not being able to film certain events. For instance, she presented detailed case histories of women who have undergone illegal abortions as “photo novels.” She also created visual metaphors, such as an image of a bathtub with steaming water, which left viewers imagining the horrific method it represents—in this case, women bathing in scalding water, relying on the superstition that this induced miscarriages. Abril’s retrospective evocation of abortions, which recurs very often in this series, also challenges the notion that only photographs of events that are captured in real time can serve as empirical evidence.

On Abortion covers a wide range of countries where abortion is illegal, such as Poland, El Salvador and Ireland, as well as those—such as the United States, Chile, Italy and India—where women face moral, religious, financial or social barriers to it. Although abortion was legalised in India in 1971, unsafe methods are still in use, and, according to an article in the Indian Express this September, are responsible for 10 percent of all maternal deaths in the country. Abril pointed specifically to the example of Italy, where she thinks that abortions should theoretically be easy to access. “But then, the hospitals are full of objectors of conscience,” she said. “Even Catholic or conservative women do it at home because of shame and repercussions.” Abril said she had heard the phrase “If you do it at home, it’s not really an abortion,” from women who had starved themselves in attempted self-abortions.

Abril did not initially intend for On Abortion to be the first chapter of A History of Misogyny, but said she decided on it because of the urgency of the issue. “Human-rights, women’s-rights are always at stake, and especially in these moments of political insecurity, are the first to suffer the consequences,” she said. Her multidisciplinary project contributes to the ongoing, and often invisible, battle that women are fighting for the right to make informed decisions about their bodies. One of the most critical aspects of this struggle, Abril explained, is confronting pro-life groups campaigning to ban abortion. “It’s quite obvious that if at least 47,000 women die every year because of not having access to safe abortion, the solution of just illegalising it is not a real solution,” she said.

This photo essay was first published in the November 2017 issue of The Caravan, which contains the complete selection of images from the story.

Photographs and captions by Laia Abril.

Laia Abril is a multidisciplinary artist based in Barcelona, working in photography, text, video and sound.

Keywords: pro-choice Health abortion pro-life