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We Need Art That Helps Us Imagine the World We Want to Win Post-“Roe”

Art takes us into possible futures where we have the right to determine our sexual and reproductive lives with dignity.

Abortion rights supporters attend a rally and march on May 14, 2022, in New York City.

After the Supreme Court overturned the right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, at the end of June 2022, there was a flurry of executive, legislative, legal and activist activity to protect access to abortion, with a particular emphasis on the November midterm elections. As a result, voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of abortion rights and access on ballot measures. Despite this clear message from voters, and polling that shows 6 in 10 Americans support legal abortion, Americans still lack the constitutional right to abortion. On the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, abortion is currently unavailable in at least 14 states and an entrenched six-to-three anti-abortion majority sits on the Supreme Court. Now is the time to look beyond legislators and lawyers for ideas of how to expand access to abortion and establish it as essential health care, without stigma. A shift is unlikely to come from politicians and electoral politics. Partisan lawmakers are not going to unstick a hyper-partisan U.S.

More than ever, we need the tools of culture to work our way out of a national public health crisis. In short: We need artists. Artists show us reality, and crucially also imagine what is possible through creative, passionate work outside the partisan gridlock of legislation, elections and judicial nominations. Art can propose new ways of looking at a situation. Art can cultivate empathy. And art can provoke audiences to challenge their own deeply held values and draw attention to complex issues that don’t fit neatly into mainstream discourse. From Pearl Primus’s 1943 solo dance “Strange Fruit” that embodied the physical horror of having seen a lynching; to ACT UP’s late-1980s and early-‘90s artist-driven work that employed creative public actions and striking images to demand treatment for HIV/AIDS, fight stigma and resist institutional oppression; to Emma Sulkowicz’s performance art “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” (2014-15) that powerfully raised awareness of campus sexual assault; to El Teatro Campesino’s more than five decades of creating theater for social change, it’s clear that bodies moving in concerted effort can shift us out of habitual ways of seeing a situation, and can show us new ideas for moving through the world.

Sometimes art can play a role in cultural shifts that lead to legislative gains that previously seemed unattainable. Take, for example, “This Boat Called My Body,” created and performed by For Youth Inquiry (FYI). This theater piece used the stories of real teens collected by the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) to develop the story of Jane, a teenage protagonist who learns she is pregnant at the beginning of the play, and asks the audience to help her access abortion services in a state that requires parental notification. Throughout the play, the audience learns what it’s like for a teen to navigate the state’s laws, hears her hopes for her life and witnesses her struggles as she confronts barriers to access. Although moving hearts and minds is a goal of FYI’s performances, they also design their plays to provoke action, not just emotional or intellectual reactions. Their plays always involve participation that is aimed at building the skills of the audience so that they learn and practice tools to take action in the real world, such as googling Illinois abortion law and discussing Jane’s parental options. We also see metaphorical actions like helping Jane put her boat in the water and wishing her well as she rows off to her abortion and her future.

Although Illinois required parental authorization for underage abortion when the play premiered in 2018, the law was repealed in 2021, bucking the trend of increasing restrictions on abortion at the state level. In this case, artists played a role in helping the public develop empathy for teens seeking abortion services as well as skills for taking action in support of those teens. As Alyssa Vera Ramos, ICAH’s arts justice coordinator and FYI’s artistic director, says, “we’re asking people to learn real things and take real action during the piece. It’s practicing for real life.”

In other cases, like the dance “Womb Wars”’ by the New York-based dance company Urban Bush Women and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the arts are sometimes part of a much longer process of shifting the culture by repeatedly staging the complexities of issues that are too often presented as either/or. Although it premiered in 1988, the dance’s foregrounding of bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive rights for Black, Indigenous and other people of color — in other words, of reproductive justice — points to an as-yet unattained future. Weaving together personal stories with a chorus of women who alternately mourn the multiple violences of the past and present like sexual assault, forced pregnancy and female infanticide, and join in unified resistance and celebration of a different future, the dance also foreshadowed a more recent emphasis on abortion storytelling, and the need to listen to people’s experiences with abortion.

In the short time since the Dobbs decision eliminated a constitutional right to abortion in the U.S., a number of new performances have been created. Notable among them is the wish: a manual for a last-ditch effort to save abortion in the united states through theater* (*a free, downloadable, highly informative and v funny play/book of spells about the fact that we might lose abortion holy fuck this is not a drill) by Justice Hehir, Dena Igusti, Phanésia Pharel, Nia Akilah Robinson and Julia Specht, with dramaturgy by May Treuhaft-Ali. Combining monologues and dialogues with information about accessing medical abortion, key to the wish is the idea that the play can be performed by anyone, anywhere, and can be adapted as needed. The collective creation of the play and the creative commons approach to its performance suggests that access to abortion is everyone’s right — and responsibility. As one of the characters, Justice, says,

(((Because no one is coming to save us)))
(((Because i think we’re gonna have to save us)))

Art — including dance, performance art and theater — takes us beyond the either/or of the political debate on abortion. It takes us into the lives of people who have experienced abortion, into possible futures where people have the right to determine their sexual and reproductive lives with dignity, and into the practice of performing the change we want to see together. Beyond a matter of choice at the ballot box or legal strategies in the courts, art helps us imagine what kind of world we want to live in. This January 22, let’s look to artists for the possibilities that can animate the movement for abortion justice.