Mothers. Daughters. Wives. Sisters. Women’s lives are often valued through the relationship to men and ability to give birth, and bodily autonomy is denied because of a refusal to acknowledge women’s humanity. In the “bad old days” before abortion became legal in the United States, thousands of women died each year from botched abortions—estimates are five to ten thousand per year, but it is likely the amounts are much higher because of the stigma attached to these deaths. The reasons these women sought this procedure that was so frequently lethal were the same as now: economic, timing, health, sexual assault, and so on. Women tried to perform abortions on themselves with such objects as knitting needles and wire coat hangers, as well as drank bleach and other dangerous chemicals. Others saw doctors whose qualifications were tough to deduce; women risked (additional) sexual assault and/or death seeing these physicians, their bodies dumped on streets to fake a road accident, buried in shallow graves, cut up and thrown away like garbage.
We as a society have forgotten these realities, that women had to get permission from their husband or father to access birth control, that they could not have a credit card in their names, that they were treated as less than full people until very, very recently. Since abortion has become legal, deaths from the procedure have plummeted and become rare. Now, it is statistically more dangerous to give birth than it is to have an abortion. But with this (sometimes limited) access to reproductive freedom for so many years, we have collectively neglected to recall how horrific the conditions were, where women’s bodies were butchered for no reason other than control over their personhood. As we see restrictions flourish in our contemporary moment, we see increases in women seeking “back-alley” abortions or being forced to give birth and suffering the consequences of this unwanted event. Some politicians underline what is at stake by declaring pregnancy from rape a “gift from God,” that women should be forced to carry to term encephalitic or already dead fetuses, or legislate forced medically unnecessary procedures and make women hear lies about the effects of abortions.
In this painting series, I paint the portraits of women who died because abortion was illegal. Searching through newspaper archives, yearbooks, and periodic internet articles that attempt to remind the general public of the horrors of pre-Roe v Wade, I collect as much information as is available to recreate what each woman looked like, based on those photos and any identifying information. In this research, many women are treated as bystanders or afterthoughts in articles on their own demise; focus is placed on the men, whether doctors or romantic partners, with scarce conversation around who the woman was and what her loss meant to those around her. Similar to the current era, those that receive the most attention in these spaces are generally white women, especially middle to upper class. Poorer women gain spotlights when their deaths were especially gruesome, and women of color are purposefully erased in dominant culture newspapers. Their deaths are noted in race-specific news sources, but unlike their white counterparts, much more is written on how their deaths devastated their friends, families, and communities.
We should remember the terrible numbers of lives lost, their potential as living, breathing people denied autonomy, and the wake of their deaths as it affected the women surrounding them, as well as their sons, fathers, husbands, brothers. Religious Americans were initially in favor of Roe v Wade because they recognized the awful impacts of these women’s deaths. Because it is so easy to forget with time and propaganda, the “pro-life” movement began not because of concern over fetuses, but rather the religious right’s desire to protect segregation in schools. The fact they continue to try to limit women’s access to birth control, a proven way to lower the abortion rate, underscores how little this difficult subject is about concern but rather control over women and their bodies. Let us remember the women lost during this barbaric era and fight to ensure this history is not repeated.
The title of this series comes from the last words of 17-year-old Arlene Thompson to her mother, just before she left to die from a botched abortion. Understanding she might not return alive, she asked, “Mom, would you be really lonely without me around?” Her body was found over ten days later in a shallow grave in an empty lot, covered with trash.
*Note: This series is for sale and 100% of the proceeds go to reproductive justice organizations. All works oil on paper with embroidery.