This is an appreciation of Paula Rego’s 1998 Abortion ‘series’ in response to the overturning of ‘Roe v. Wade’ by the US Supreme Court.
Ed: Due to copyright issues we are unable to publish the work of the artist, Paula Rego. Please open this link to this Guardian article which does show some of her ‘Series’ paintings.
The first time I saw Paula Rego’s Abortion Series I wept. I have always appreciated art, but never before had I felt so moved, so emotionally and physically vulnerable, in front of a canvas. The contorted, twisting bodies, the blood red paint, the in turn foetal or quasi-sexual nature of the opening legs. In one, the school uniform, another, dark eyes that stared directly out, daring the viewer to turn away. In each picture the women are alone, confined to domestic settings without medical or emotional support.
“Born from … indignation” at her native Portugal’s 1998 Abortion Referendum, where a tiny majority voted in favour of retaining the criminalisation of abortion, Rego’s Series soon became infamous. The political intent is inescapable: abortions may be banned, but they cannot be prevented. In an article with the Guardian in 2019, Rego described how her work “highlights the fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to.” She described how “it’s very wrong to criminalise women on top of everything else. Making abortions illegal is forcing women to the backstreet solution.”
Such methods are often highly dangerous, even life-threatening, as presented in the series. Rego herself had several abortions; she spoke of the experience as being “butchered”. Her art powerfully highlights both the personal and universal nature of this ordeal, lamenting the physical and emotional torment generations of women have endured.
The highlight of Rego’s Series is “Triptych 1998” which shows the pain and suffering of illegal abortion. It can be viewed here at Lakeland Arts.
Rego’s work significantly changed public opinion: never before had the existence backstreet abortions been so visually confronting to an audience. By removing their suffering from taboo, Rego gave a voice to women who were silenced. Eleven years later, when a second referendum was held in Portugal, 59.25% of the electorate voted in favour of legalising abortion. The change in public opinion was partially attributed to Rego’s Series.
Her art had transcended beyond the canvas, into a political sphere desperately in need of humanising. Rego wrote that “she [the woman] is being humiliated but she is triumphant.” The power of the Abortion Series is thus absolutely in its depiction of this womanhood: crippled and tortured, but still strong in its defiance of subjection by a patriarchy determined to control and subordinate them.
I learnt of Paula Rego’s death on the 8th June 2022 in a newspaper obituary, waiting on a cold and windswept platform for a train. Just 16 days later, Roe v. Wade was overturned in the United States of America. The federal right to abortion, a fundamental landmark in the legal and social history of the nation, was thus revoked. Suddenly, millions of women were cast back through generations of struggle into a new era of repression, persecution and trauma. In the first states to overturn Roe, there are currently 7.2 million women of reproductive age. The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t just impact women in America, however, but all across the globe: it will renew the strength of anti-abortion voices and impact legislation worldwide. Rego foresaw the power of the US’ anti-abortion drive in 2019, calling it “grotesque” and “unbelievable that these battles have to be fought all over again.”
Since the turn of the century the liberalisation of abortion rights has been on an upwards trajectory. Recent referendums, such as in the Republic of Ireland in 2018, have drawn much attention and celebration in their results. Since 2000, 37 countries have expanded the legal requirements for abortions, and more seem set to follow. However, Roe’s overturning last month has forced us all to reconsider the security of constitutional abortion rights and our bodily sovereignty. Reproductive freedoms are threatened everywhere. It reminds us of the fragility of life and liberty, and how we chose to value them.
Ed: Again we are not allowed to publish Paula Rego’s paintings due to copyright. Please click on this link to view ‘Untitled No. 1 1998’ show in National Galleries Scotland.
Today, 90 million women of reproductive age live in countries where abortions are prohibited in any circumstances. Even those with some legal freedoms struggle practically, with over 700 million women unable to access safe and legal abortion care. This results in over 25 million abortions being carried out each year in unsafe conditions. The World Health Organisation estimates that from these, 23,000 women and girls die each year.
Paula Rego’s Abortion Series is now a quarter of a century old, but it is as relevant as it ever was. This could be you, each painting seems to scream; this is all of us.
Modiano, Lisa. “Why Is Paula Rego’s Abortion Series Still Relevant Today?” The Collector, 15 April 2022. Accessed 18 August 2022.
“The World’s Abortion Laws.” Center for Reproductive Rights. Accessed 18 August 2022.
Rego, Paula, and Sharon Cameron. “The importance of Paula Rego’s Abortion Series.”, National Galleries of Scotland, 12 February 2020. Accessed 18 August 2022.
“Paula Rego’s Abortion Series.” Seattle Artist League, 24 June 2022. Accessed 18 August 2022.
Brydon, Archie. “Paula Rego And Her Powerful ‘Abortion Series.’” whynow. Accessed 20 August 2022