Taken from the January/February 2015 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.
The photograph juxtaposes the bottom half of a White woman against a plain gray background. Blood runs down her inner thighs, past where the photograph allows us to see. Handcuffs join her wrists and her clasped hands cover her genitals.
Natalie Kirk, a recent graduate from the College of Fine Arts, took the photograph. She told me her goal was to raise awareness of SB-1433, more commonly known as the Oklahoma Personhood Bill,1, which would have granted full personhood to embryos. Her motivation for the piece came when she learned about the bill: “I was appalled and making art was a way I could help bring awareness to the issue.”
The move to grant fetuses legal and political standing took root back in 2008, when “local anti-choice groups founded an umbrella organization called Personhood USA”2 to advance “personhood” measures nationwide. Oklahoma’s “personhood” effort died after the state legislature failed to pass the bill and the state Supreme Court unanimously rejected the effort to put it on the ballot in 2012. “Personhood” amendments have been rejected each of the five times they’ve been on the ballot.3 Unfortunately, the underlying perspective that a fetus has more value than a woman’s life (or rights) has been more successful — pregnant women’s rights are being restricted at unprecedented levels across the United States.4
The image started me thinking about the intersection of art and advocacy, and the utility of art in the women's health, reproductive justice, and abortion rights movements. Art — especially visual art — can be very powerful (just think of the saying: “A picture’s worth a thousand words”). And, although we may trust photographs less than we did before Photoshop, it’s hard to deny they still have influence. Images carry meaning — and meaning shapes how we think about, and understand, the world and our roles in it.
Art has the potential to offer up visual reminders about the grim consequences of “personhood” measures. The image in Natalie’s photograph connects us with the inherent vulnerability of the woman’s situation. It echoes the verbal arguments about reproductive justice made by reproductive rights advocates and activists. It connects the personal and the political, in the most obvious way, and evokes empathy for someone who may be different from us. And, if Natalie’s photograph featured a woman of color, instead of a White woman, it would convey a host of arguments about the racial and ethnic disparities in access to reproductive healthcare.
Art, in its various forms, has long been a key element of social movements, precisely because it helps facilitate shifts in culture. The photographs, images, and music of the Civil Rights movement undoubtedly changed minds and shaped society. Television shows like Modern Family, films like Orgasm Inc. and Pink Ribbons Inc.,5 and performance art like “Carry the Load”6 are having a similar positive impact on the public’s views about key social issues.
Opponents of reproductive rights know the power of art and images. They often promote their viewpoint with a photograph of a fetus, typically between 18-22 weeks old. The image is usually “framed and magnified so that the fetus appears to be a complete, separate individual. Conversely, because everything that surrounds the fetus is expunged, the humanity and personhood — indeed, the very presence of the woman who carries the fetus — is erased.”7 Photographs like Natalie’s have the ability to insert women back into conversations about “personhood.” Moving forward, we should use art, in its many forms, to illustrate not only the dangers of “personhood” measures, but also to refocus how society views women’s reproductive rights and health.
Kira S. Jones, M.A., is an Academic Advising Coordinator in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah and NWHN Board Member.
Photo credit – “SB-1433” by Natalie Kirk; used with permission - www.natkirk.com.
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1. According to NARAL, while “details vary, ‘personhood’ measures typically change a state’s definition of the word ‘Person’ to include a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, with the intent of outlawing abortion.” Natalie’s placard also includes a brief description of the Oklahoma Personhood bill and how it would impact women.
2. NARAL Pro-Choice America, “Personhood” measures: Extreme and dangerous attempts to ban abortion. Washington, DC: NARAL Pro-Choice America, January 2014. Retrieved from http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/media/fact-sheets/abortion-personhood.pdf.
3. Marty R, “Personhood: Coming to a city near you,” Slate, November 5, 2014. Available on-line at: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/11/05/personhood_loses_in_colorado_and_north_dakota_on_to_the_city_strategy.html
4. Walden R, “When pregnancy is a crime: Arrests, forced interventions in the name of public health,” Our Bodies Ourselves Website, January 16, 2013. Available on-line at: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/2013/01/when-pregnancy-is-a-crime-arrests-forced-interventions-in-the-name-of-public-health/
5. See: http://firstrunfeatures.com/pinkribbonsinc/ and http://www.orgasminc.org/
6. Kaplan S, “How a mattress became a symbol for student activists against sexual assault,” Washington Post, November 28, 2014. Available online at: http://wapo.st/124VhCI.
7. Hayden S, “Revitalizing the debate between <life> and <choice>: The 2004 march for women’s lives,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 2009; 6(2), 111-131.