There’s a monoprint in the Tate Modern that has the words “something’s wrong” written in capital letters above a sketch of a naked, Egon Schiele-style woman. The letters, so hastily and frustratingly scrawled that some are in reverse, are smudged. Blood pours from the vagina of the spread-legged woman.
Tracey Emin’s 1997 Terribly Wrong formed part of her A Week from Hell series, in which the artist depicted a botched abortion. In 2009, Emin wrote in this newspaper describing the harrowing emotional predicament surrounding her termination. “I would have been so much happier had I not had the abortions,” she wrote, “but I truly believe that I would have been so much unhappier if I had had the children.”
Emin’s words ring true for every woman I know who has undergone a termination – for whatever reason they decide to go through with it. The decision, the process, the aftermath is not the lazily correcting of a stupid mistake – it is a vital and necessary protection of a woman’s life. No, women don’t have abortions lightly.
Of course, what they want you to think is this – that unfeeling, hateful, heathen women are going around playing fast and loose with contraception, safe in the knowledge they can pop to Marie Stopes for a termination. By “they,” I mean the 25 white male senators in Alabama who voted to ban abortion at any stage of pregnancy with only the exception of the woman’s life being at risk; the senators in Missouri, who banned abortion after eight weeks with only the exception of a medical emergency; and those who voted earlier this year to ban it in Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia.
They are the far-right Republican Christians seeking to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which gave women in US the right to abortion.
That’s why the wave of women opening up about their terminations using the hashtag #YouKnowMe is so powerful. Posting on Twitter on Wednesday, actor Busy Phillips said: “1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Many people think they don’t know someone who has, but #YouKnowMe. So let’s do this: if you are also the 1 in 4, let’s share it and start to end the shame. Use #YouKnowMe and share your truth.”
At the time of writing, the Tweet has had over 55,000 likes, with thousands replying with their own varying and unimaginable reasons why they chose to – or had to – terminate a pregnancy. Some of the stories are so gut wrenching they make the manipulative language from senators self-identifying as “pro-life” and promoting the so-called “heartbeat bill” even more repulsive.
This silencing of abortion stories has been weaponised against women, restricting discussions around unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. This enables the anti-women, anti-abortion campaigners to convince people it’s a rare evil, just as male squeamishness about menstruation has led to period poverty; their repulsion felt towards women’s genitals has led to women suffering for years with endometriosis and polycystic ovaries and how the menopause was, for decades, mentioned in hushed tones only as “the change”.
Sharing experiences is how women will change this conversation. Just as we shouted #MeToo about sexual assault and harassment, leading to trials and convictions, so we shall show that this is not an abstract law that will affect only a few.
While many have highlighted that Theresa May’s government continues to uphold Northern Ireland’s even more draconian law, the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, this callous dismantling of women’s reproductive autonomy in several US states exposes just how precarious women’s rights are – not just in America, but the world over.
That reproductive autonomy can be reversed at such breakneck speed (it takes longer to study for an English A Level on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) should be a wake-up call to all who dare deny misogyny is alive and well.
The new bills passed in the US, and Northern Ireland’s legislation, as has been well documented, don’t allow terminations even for women who are impregnated by their rapists. What these laws would class as a child come into effect at the exact time many women begin to flip through the diary, wondering if they’ve missed their period. Before most even consider peeing on a stick. The “heartbeat” they speak of is the microscopic moving of an embryo – a not-yet foetus – the size of a lentil.
Women are worth less than a cluster of cells the size of a lentil, we’re being told. We are reproductive vessels. For years, Emin’s work was criticised as too personal, too attention-seeking, too graphic. But sharing these stories is the only way to highlight that they happen – and how often.
Gloria Steinem dedicated her 2015 autobiography, My Life On the Road, to the doctor who performed a secret abortion on her when she was in her early twenties in 1957 – before abortions were legal in the UK. As a result of his help, Steinem wrote, she was able to do “the best I could with my life”.
Women will continue to do what is right for their bodies – and we will continue to talk about it and fight for it until those signing bills against our freedoms are a distant memory so we, too, can do the best with our lives. While they might try to silence us in law, they cannot silence our voices.