Last summer the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, overturning previous decisions made in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in a case that is now ubiquitously known as the Dobbs decision. Choice and decision go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing. Choice is something that exists (or doesn’t). Decision is the action taken.
Two shows on view now, “For Those Without Choice” at Weinberg/Newton Gallery and “Roe 2.0–It Ain’t Over Yet!” at Woman Made Gallery, are processing, unraveling, and reacting to the Dobbs decision. The galleries’ stances are clear—the word “abortion” appears 38 times on Weinberg/Newton’s walls—but it is, unfortunately, defensive. They are trying to reverse a reversal.
Weinberg/Newton’s exhibitions begin by partnering with a nonprofit organization. Those partnerships can lead to meetings, events, screenings, or full-scale shows. “For Those Without Choice” is presented in partnership with Planned Parenthood Illinois (PPIL), the result of a relationship with PPIL’s president and CEO, Jennifer Welch, that has been developing since 2018. According to Nabiha Khan-Giordano, director of Weinberg/Newton, the intention was to put on an exhibition “when the timing was right for both of us.” Needless to say, the Dobbs decision increased awareness and, therefore, perceived urgency about reproductive rights in America. In other words, the timing was right.
But that’s not entirely fair. Yes, Dobbs marked a distinct moment in time when public sentiment (and donations) for protecting reproductive rights surged. But for many grassroots organizations, like the Chicago Abortion Fund and the Midwest Access Coalition, this moment has been a long time coming. As Amy Littlefield wrote in the New York Times, “The missed opportunities have become painfully clear in retrospect, as many abortion-rights supporters have begun to take stock of just how much has been lost.”
Planned Parenthood is a massive organization, for better and for worse. In a time when the laws on one side of a border don’t match the laws on the other, national organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation are locked in ambiguous legalities. It’s the smaller organizations that end up taking all of the risks. For example, as Sarah Leonard points out in Lux Magazine, “when the National Abortion Federation stopped funding in Kentucky fearing legal risks, the Chicago Abortion Fund sent $5,000 to a Kentucky abortion clinic, deciding that they were likely protected from repercussions.” She continues, “Giving to the small abortion funds that are willing to take these risks and help compensate for the loss of Southern and Midwestern funds can make a real difference in patients’ lives.”
If we’re thinking about impact here—and we are—a piece called breadbox by artist Borealis at Woman Made Gallery is the absolute star of the show. Not only is the piece aesthetically interesting, it comes with donation-based goodie bags full of informational zines, talk lines, local funding options, and even a pregnancy test. The installation is part of a network of bread boxes, all of which distribute regionally-specific abortion care information. Breadbox is a necessary reminder that impact isn’t gauged by the biggest, shiniest object in the room. Local, direct action is available too. As Pamela Merritt, the executive director of Medical Students for Choice, said to Lux Magazine, “Too much of the history of abortion and family planning access is being written as if the court gave it to us and that’s just not true. There was movement organizing and direct action happening all over the place.”
Aesthetically, the two shows have some obvious differences. Weinberg/Newton’s well-lit walls are drenched in pink, red, black, and gold. Collectively, the works shirk subtlety for bold lines and bright colors. Woman Made Gallery’s show is, well, bloodier. But because of their common opposition, the art across both galleries shares a couple of key themes, which I’ve loosely divided into “consequences” and “control.”
What I’ll call the consequence collection deals with the physical, financial, and emotional aftermath of giving or not giving birth. Us, a stunning black-and-white photograph by Marzena Abrahamik at Weinberg/Newton, shows happy messy motherhood, while a couple of paces away, Udita Upadhyaya’s three-page letter, From an Abortion Doula, details the immeasurable sacrifice, shame, and grief that an unknown abortion-seeker faces. At Woman Made Gallery, Frederica Diane Huff’s crayon portrait of a woman gazing out from beneath a pile of floppy, crawling, crying babies needs little explanation, but her title, Biological Bondage, says it all anyway.
These consequence-based pieces pull on the viewer’s heartstrings. But the point of the exhibitions isn’t simply to unravel, they are also meant to outrage. In Majority Opinion (Presented from the Majority Perspective) at Weinberg/Newton, artists Maria Robinson and Sayward Schoonmaker read the Dobbs v. Jackson majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, to a camera. They only voice the parts of the 209-page document that cite a woman. The result is a quiet flipping of pages, punctuated by the very occasional phrase. A redacted transcript is printed for the viewer to flip through, a heap of ink-heavy pages. At Woman Made Gallery, Heather Schulte’s Ctrl-Alt-Del also deals in words and redactions, using needlepoint on a newspaper article to expose the power of language—specifically media language, in this poignant case—in creating and perpetuating oppression.
Amid the outrage are glimmers of wit and irony. The Guerrilla Girls BroadBand’s The Advantages of No Choice Whatsoever declares tongue-in-cheek victories of the Dobbs decision. Among them are “Postponing your career ambitions indefinitely,” “rediscovering the thrills of back alley abortions,” and “finding more children available on the black market.” Throughout both exhibitions, there is ample needlepoint and glitter and shiny pleather handbags, an accumulation of subverted symbols of domesticity, each one flashing a defiant message of independence.
As haunting or witty or outrageous or delicate as I found many of the artworks, I kept coming back to breadbox—its clear call to action, its unambiguous benefactors, its immediacy. Because while the rhetoric of this issue emphasizes choice, we need to remember that everything is a decision. To be a parent, to not be a parent, to not be a parent yet. To view an artwork, to show an artist, to act in defense rather than offense. Everything is a decision.
“For Those Without Choice”
Through 4/15: Thu-Sat 11 AM-5 PM, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 N. Milwaukee, weinbergnewtongallery.com
“Roe 2.0 – It Ain’t Over Yet!”
Through 3/4: Thu-Sun noon- 5 PM, 2150 S. Canalport, 4A-3, womanmade.org
Abortion is healthcare
Tips on obtaining an abortion and supporting abortion access in a post-Roe vs Wade world
Jane and Roe wade into the history of abortion rights
The author of Jane: Abortion and the Underground and the Reader theater editor talk about putting reproductive justice center stage.
The end of Roe
Regarding the recently revealed U.S. Supreme Court draft ruling on Roe v. Wade: WTF? Because, it’s the F we’re talking about, right? That little itch we’re biologically programmed to scratch and its inordinate, inequitable aftermath? As I’ve opined here before, if cisgender men were the ones carrying a pregnancy for nine months, suffering through an…