On January 28th, 2021 Poland’s controversial abortion ban took effect, making abortions almost impossible to legally obtain. Thousands of Polish citizens defied lockdown to protest the ban’s implementation.
The ruling occurred last October 2020, when Poland’s government decided that abortions in the case of severe genetic abnormalities were unconstitutional. This decision sparked a nine-day protest involving more than 100,000 people. One of the protest’s organizers, Klementyna Suchanow, said the law is an infraction of human rights; “This is about the freedom and dignity of people. The will of people to protest should be a lesson for anyone who wants to impose authoritarian ways." Each year, around 1,000 to 2,000 legal abortions take place in Poland. However, around 10-15% of women endure illegal abortions or flee the country.
On January 22nd, 2021 Texas filed to ban abortion after 12 weeks, but most abortions performed in Texas take place at 20 weeks. On January 24th, 2021, South Carolina voted to outlaw all abortions where the heartbeat is detected, excluding rape, incest, and danger to the mother. Fetal heartbeat emerges around 6 weeks into pregnancy, which is usually when the woman notices a late period. Abortion rights are a highly controversial present-day issue. While women have made major strides towards gender equality, the fight for abortion continues globally.
Paula Rego, a visual artist, born 1935 in Portugal, was brought up in a middle-class family. Sexual education in Portugual lacked vital information, and Rego was taught to obey men, abstain from sex, and conform to society’s view of womanhood. In her late 20’s, Rego left Portugal for England, attending Slade’s School of Fine Art. There she channeled her fight for women through many mediums, choosing to focus on pastels.
In 1998, Rego began a series entitled Untitled: The Abortion Pastels. During this time, her native country proposed a referendum to overturn stringent abortion laws, but the effort was defeated. From the defeat, Rego found new inspiration for her art, highlighting the repercussions of the verdict. Many women, primarily women without financial support or independence, had only one option: an illegal, at-home abortion. Rego believes, “No matter what the lawmakers want, women will still have them, just like they used to in Portugal. What the lawmakers are doing is putting the women in danger.” Rego’s series depicts women in the midst of abortion, revealing the everyday reality behind these restrictions.
The series is composed of ten pieces, all of which portray raw emotion emanating from the woman amid one of her most vulnerable moments. Rego’s work is primarily faded in colour, focusing creative energy towards the figures in each piece. Ellen Caldwell, an art critic and historian, notes the resemblance of Rego’s pieces to two common themes in Western art: the gaze and the reclining nude.
Within The Abortion Pastels, Caldwell notes that Rego consciously utilizes the gaze, whether it be direct or glancing away, to control how the viewer interprets the women. She plays on this trope, as the gaze usually suggests seduction, inviting the viewer to the rest of the woman’s body, while Rego’s women are instead covered and in control. Viewers are confronted with the circumstances these women have been forced into, and their attempt to reclaim control. In one image, a woman looks directly at the viewer, exposing her despair, resolve, and agony. In others, the women look away, Rego keeping their gaze hidden to cast attention towards their physical and emotional pain.
Various pieces, including Triptych from the series, also depict women reclining. While the reclining nude usually represents sensuality and objectification, Rego repurposes the theme. The women she illustrates are not lusted after or the object of sexual desire. Rego’s women exist not for the viewer, but for themselves.
The pastel series captures the act of abortion, not the past sexual act or the impending cleansing. Rego’s women are in the limbo of abortion, with empty buckets suggesting the disposal of blood. They see ordinary household items, tarnished with a medical procedure. They see an isolated figure, alone in their strength. Rego chooses to depict the moment before the blood. She said, "I tried to do full frontal but I didn't want to show blood, gore or anything to sicken, because people wouldn't look at it then. And what you want to do is make people look, make pretty colours and make it agreeable, and in that way make people look at life." Rego acknowledges the limitations of her art, crafting beautiful images with deeper meaning in an attempt to force the audiences to engage with difficult topics.
Rego’s work is considered integral to the liberation of Portugal’s abortion laws in 2007. The series unveiled a shamed, and often condemned, topic. When asked if Rego identifies as a feminist, she said, “In the sense that I have defended women’s right to safe abortions and made work about female genital mutilation. I make work from a woman’s perspective, but that is because I am a woman. It would be hard to make work from a man’s perspective.”
As abortion rights remain threatened, Rego’s work remains relevant. The fight should not be about who possesses the right to another’s body, but who possesses the right to safety within their own body. Women will continue to fight for the legal and cultural ownership of their own bodies, and Rego’s pastel women fight for the right to choose.