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The Classical Painting of Abortion We All Deserved

The Classical Painting of Abortion We All Deserved

Laura Hurley, Abortion Talk Volunteer

24 March 2022, 13:00:00

The way abortion is depicted is a key part of its destigmatisation. The French film ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ has a depiction of abortion I can’t stop thinking about.

There’s No Museum in the World with a Frame Called “The Abortion”

Set in the late 18th century, the film ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ includes a subplot about a young housemaid seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. She is aided by the lady of the house, Héloïse, and her lover Marianne, a female artist who has been sent to the house to paint a portrait. The women make various attempts to induce a miscarriage, with the girl drinking a herbal potion and hanging from the ceiling, to no avail. She is later taken to see a local woman who inserts another herbal concoction into her vagina. Of course, these sorts of dangerous methods are still being practiced in many parts of the world, thanks to laws which criminalise access to safe abortion.


As the young girl is recovering, the women decide to recreate the scene of her on the bed, with her legs up, and the abortion provider at her feet. Marianne, who has previously spoken of the erasure of women in the great art tradition of the time, begins to paint the scene modelled by the two other women.


I saw this capturing of abortion in a classical painting as an attempt to legitimise and dignify the experience, to show the reality of this extremely common, yet hidden activity. To make abortion a worthy subject of art, even to make it beautiful. The director of the film, Céline Schiamma, notes


“…there is no museum in the world where there is a frame called “The Abortion.” It’s an everyday thing, but it’s never represented. And why?” 


Modern Feminist Abortion Paintings

In the 1990s, Portuguese artist Paula Rego created paintings of girls undergoing illegal abortions “as a form of propaganda” to expose the reality of legal restrictions on abortion, which forced people to seek unsafe methods. Her picturing of the reality of abortion was said to have impacted on the positive results of a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal in 2007, showing the power of art which depicts the reality of abortion to change hearts and minds.


But these kinds of frank, feminist portrayals of abortion don't tend to be what we see if we do a quick Google image search of the term “abortion”. We’re likely faced with images of angry protests, heavily pregnant bumps and, thanks to anti-abortion groups, many many pictures of fetuses.


The Image of a Fetus, a Man Floating in Space

So why does the anti-abortion movement use so many images of fetuses and babies? Back in 1987 the feminist academic Rosalind Pollack Petchesky had some ideas. She talks about the tendency to picture a fetus completely unattached from a pregnant person, a “'man' in space, floating free, attached only by the umbilical cord to the spaceship.” If you've ever walked past an anti-abortion group protesting outside a clinic, you’ll be familiar with this type of image - an abstract fetus, outside of the womb.


The anti-abortion movement’s obsession with fetal images makes sense. If you forget that abortion happens because a real human being is making a decision connected to her personal situation, the relationships she has, her mental and physical health and her future, it’s easier to dismiss its necessity and claim that anyone taking such a decision is ‘murdering a baby’. Petchesky argues,


“…we have to restore women to a central place in the pregnancy scene…to image the pregnant woman, not as an abstraction, but within her total framework of relationships, economic and health needs, and desires.”


The artists mentioned above have done just that - made a political choice to re-centre the person who is having an abortion, not just her physical body, but her needs, desires and humanity.


What Does Abortion Really Look Like?

Images of abortion should present reality. When you know that most people who have accessed safe abortion feel relief (99% in this 2020 study), you know it’s OK to show women with neutral, or even smiling expressions post-abortion. When you know that most abortions happen in the first trimester of pregnancy, you are less likely to use a large pregnancy bump to illustrate the procedure! And when you know that the majority of those accessing abortion care are already parents, or will go on to be, you know that you can picture people who have abortions with their children. The anti-abortion movement shouldn't get to co-opt images of family, motherhood and babies.


As advocates working on destigmatising abortion, we too must think about how we ‘visualise’ this subject. It’s not always easy. For anyone who wants to use images to illustrate abortion which are empowering and non-stigmatising, take a look at IPPF’s abortion messaging guide for information and examples.



This article was written by Abortion Talk volunteer, Laura Hurley.