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On June 24, 2022, in a sweeping and historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion, one upheld for nearly a half-century, ceased to exist.
It is a ruling that swiftly and decisively affected the lives of every person in this country but weighs most heavily upon any individual capable of carrying a child to term.
The decision to terminate a pregnancy is not an uncommon experience: nearly one in four women in the United States will undergo an abortion by age 45 for reasons that are deeply personal, yet the stigma around abortion has generationally silenced women for fear of repercussion.
Abortion stories are unspoken stories.
The narrative thread of motherhood will be one forever woven through our collective human consciousness, connecting our unique stories, both fragile and fierce. They are tau(gh)t stories that begin within a reproductive body, and the cost, the courage, and the choice to give birth should remain a choice all the mother’s own.
Rebecca Traister writes how decades of silence had left us unprepared for a post-Roe world, as well as the ensuing battle forward:
The fewer stories that get told, the more representational weight each one carries. Each individual narrative is asked to stand in for so much, rather than exist simply as one grain of sand on a beach’s worth of reproductive experience. In the lived world, abortion isn’t some heavily weighted reality siloed off from the rest of life, health care, and humanity.
Abortion is life, health care, and humanity.
unspoken was conceived as a space for women to share their abortion stories. We asked them to consider how they remembered and interpreted a specific moment in their lives. To reflect upon their experience of a moment of need because we are in a moment of urgency again.
The unspoken stories we received were personal, powerful, and poignant. They became the pages of a digital commonplace book that interweaves the stories of women who chose to terminate a pregnancy with Cynthia Mulcahy’s series Abortion Bouquet: An Action.
Mulcahy makes “abortion bouquets” from traditional abortifacient plants for artists, activists, abortion rights advocates, and allies: contemporary women holding bouquets imbued with the ancient wisdom of midwives.
Together unspoken explores the multiplicity of ways stories speak through silence and speech. The project offers visual and verbal tropes of women, of how they have (always) been the silent keepers of their reproductive health and safety, and in a post-Roe world, will be called to interpret and navigate again.
unspoken is an act of defiance. The storytellers share their fierceness, and we appreciate their courage. Together these stories create a bouquet, and what were once secrets ceded have become potent seeds to be scattered and sown.
At this critical historical juncture, abortion stories can no longer be held in secret or shame. They must be shared in support and service to generations of future women, to actively be unspoken no more.
Sarah E Webb
unspoken is presented as a collection— no story was rejected, although more were shared privately, without the intent of publication.
The stories are presented strictly in the order they were received. Any editing was minimal in service to clarity rather than content.
NANCY – MAINE
In 1969, when I was 19, I found myself pregnant and not knowing what to do. I was single, living away from home, my mother had said that if I ever became pregnant outside of marriage, the family would disown me, and abortion was illegal in the US. You even had limited access to birth control if you were not married.
IMANI – NEW YORK
I was sexually assaulted at 11, 13, and again at 15. Different persons. But it left me hollow, and I just wanted to feel something. Because my father labeled me a slut with increasing vigor after each assault, I just wanted to connect somehow with someone. Then there he was. I was 16 and in love and feeling like I was appreciated and adored.
JENNIFER – PENNSYLVANIA
What Choice? or When The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard Meant Nothing
Outside my dorm room, seated in a wooden phone booth, I slid the folding door closed. Holding a letter with my boyfriend Grant’s newest phone number, I traced my finger over the touch-tone buttons before pushing for real.
Abortion Bouquet: An Action by Cynthia Mulcahy
The first of many abortion bouquets as part of Cynthia Mulcahy’s Abortion Bouquet: An Action conceived in the days immediately after the leaked draft Supreme Court document–an initial early draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito–that overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights. Comprised of plants Mulcahy grew and harvested in her garden—botanical agents historically used to terminate pregnancies, a traditional plant knowledge now mostly lost—the bouquets are a symbolic gesture. Each hand-cut bouquet was gifted to fellow artists, activists, abortion rights advocates, and allies who agreed to post a photo of their Abortion Bouquets in a virtual social media campaign to highlight the abortion rights fight in the days before the Supreme Court vote scheduled for late June. On June 24th, 2022, the morning Mulcahy was delivering her most recent work, Abortion Seed Library, a surrealist pink clamshell seed archive, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Cynthia Mulcahy is a Dallas-based conceptual artist and independent curator. Her intermedia works range from large-scale public interventions to small quiet gestures and often defy categorization. Be it a community square dance, farming as street theater, an exhibition examining war or an evening of musical performances to recognize a public city park’s forgotten history, Mulcahy’s research-driven practice often begins in the archive with a desire to re-investigate the historical record for the present moment. Questioning the divisions between various forms of art-related practice, the artist’s work also promotes the concept and practice of art as activism. Mulcahy’s commitment to platforming the work of others through organizing exhibitions has focused on pressing contemporary subjects such as modern warfare and American militarism.
ANONYMOUS – NEW JERSEY
One of my closest friends from college is from a small town in rural Texas. A year ago, she told me her story, which is in part both sad and happy. She had become pregnant and was just about to start the job of her dreams as a marine biologist working in the Maldives. She told me a baby would ruin her life, and given her prospects, I agreed.
EVE – CALIFORNIA
“Trust me,” I said. “They break.” I was walking in Soho with Noelle laughing at the fragility of condoms.
Back in Rhode Island where I went to medical school, foreign twinges started in my belly. I cried often, but not from sadness.
DAPHNE – MAINE
At some point in my early life, I was impressed with the idea that a child should never be told, “You were an accident.” I understood the logic of this concept: accident implied mistake, something unwanted. I have had six pregnancies with my husband. In considering each, it would probably be accurate to say they were all accidents.
LESLEE – NEW YORK
I had done EVERYTHING right. Yet, in the early 1980s, as a college student, I got pregnant. It was devastating as I – really – had done everything right. I had waited to have sex with “the right” person. I was very careful, and I thought I was fully protected. Yet it still happened. As an elite athlete, I was reluctant to take the pill, so I chose as birth control the diaphragm — a still available today, yet not-as-common form of birth control that – thankfully – has enjoyed significant design and effectiveness alterations.
HELEN – RHODE ISLAND
My father, John Hadley, was born on the Upper East Side of New York into a family with immense wealth and privilege. Most evenings, his parents dressed in black tie. He went to Groton and Yale, where his grandfather was President. For graduate school, he decided to go to the University Of Chicago, which took our family to Hyde Park on the southside of Chicago in the mid-60s.
JAIME – NEW YORK
I have had two therapeutic abortions. When I was younger, I never imagined having to make that decision because when I became sexually active, I started taking birth control pills. They seemed to work, and that was that. What I didn’t know back then was that I was an alcoholic. By 25, I was a full-blown alcoholic drug addict, and I didn’t realize that medications aren’t always effective when I put substances into my body. The first time I got pregnant, I found out right after moving into my first halfway house.
LAURA – NEW YORK
It was the summer after graduating high school.
Sex education was minimal.
My period was too long overdue.
In the era prior to home pregnancy tests, my boyfriend and I went to Planned Parenthood.
I got a pregnancy test, they counseled us, and helped with the appointment to terminate.
I remember little about the experience.
ANONYMOUS – NEW YORK
I had three abortions. Each was with my husband of 40 years. We were not perfectly regular in using birth control, or it did not work as it should. Although raised middle to upper-middle class, we both had less than perfect childhoods, with one difficult parent who had psychological problems and alcoholism in one case and anger issues in another.
ANONYMOUS – NEW YORK
ABORTION….a word so heavily laden with laws and emotion it can barely sustain itself. It IS heavy. There is no lightness in it, and yet it can save lives as well as end beginnings of life. It is human intercession in the life process. It is complicated and simple. There are no, I repeat, no easy abortions. I have never met a woman who endured an abortion who considered it reasonable.
MARSHA – CALIFORNIA
In 1968, my method of contraception failed. I was able to get hold of Pat McGinnis’s “Abortion Handbook,” although even possessing the book was highly illegal, so I was already in some danger.
The handbook described how to start a self-induced abortion and included a list of clinics abroad where one could terminate their pregnancy. The do-it-yourself technique was to be followed by an immediate 911 call.
JESSICA – NEW YORK
Snapshot is faded,
A blurry mind’s eye.
Hard to recall,
If she squints, she can try.
To see a young girl,
Back then, way back when.
Secrets were cherished,
Gift given to friend.
NANCY – NEW YORK
I had mine in Harrisburg. Where did you have yours?
One day at my neighbor’s house, I was viewing her extensive collection of pro-rights and pro-woman stickers. She said to me, “I had mine in Albany. Where did you have yours?”
Abortion seems a natural part of any life, as abortion is healthcare. But it doesn’t often come up in conversation. I admit I will never tell my mother. I did tell my daughter. My abortion was the right decision.
Parsley—a very common medicinal and culinary herb as well as an abortifacient plant—producing seeds in Cynthia Mulcahy’s May garden.
Photo credit: Cynthia Mulcahy
LOUISE – NEW YORK
I had three abortions in my lifetime: two when I lived in Wisconsin in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and one in New York City in the early ‘90s. The first two were due to failures in contraception methods, and I knew that I didn’t want to have a child at that point in my life. Even though I was considered low-income in Wisconsin, health services were easily made available to me.
JULIE – CALIFORNIA
I was an eighth-grader living in a Muslim country where my dad was stationed. Lia, whose husband was also in the military, visited our household often. She was a feminist, and I hung on her every word. For my thirteenth birthday, she brought me a hyacinth, and a copy of The Female Eunuch, by feminist Germaine Greer, which I pored over.
KAREN – NEW YORK
choice (noun): an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
Forty years ago, I chose to have an abortion.
It was June 1982. I was two months shy of my 22nd birthday, teetering on the brink of adulthood. I had just graduated from college, uprooted my life, and landed on the West coast, 2,619 miles from home, to start a dream job in my chosen field.
VAL – NEW YORK
I was 26, just out of college, and I knew deep down that it wasn’t time for me to bring another person into this world. I felt 100% sure of it. Looking back, I am still glad I went ahead with the abortion. Two years after marrying my college boyfriend, we divorced. I knew in my heart and soul that it just wasn’t meant to be at that moment. It’s so important to follow your heart and let it guide you.
ABOUT THE CURATOR
Sarah E. Webb (she/her)
Sarah E. Webb’s path consists of many stitches, but at heart, she is a storyteller. From the artist studio to the yoga studio, her multi-disciplinary approach considers both spaces as creative sites of corporeal process and practice. Webb is the co-editor of Singular Women: Writing the Artist, UC Press (2003) and was a member of the 2021 Listen To Your Mother cast, Rochester, NY. She received her MFA from Visual Studies Workshop, and is currently completing her CPA in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University. Webb teaches at the University of Rochester and facilitates writing and meditation retreats on Monhegan Island, ME.
HOLDING AND BEING HELD: A CONVERSATION WITH ANNE LEIGHTON MASSONI
In conjunction with the online exhibition unspoken, don’t miss this conversation between curator, Sarah E. Webb and Anne Leighton Massoni. Read more HERE.
Anne Leighton Massoni, is the former Managing Director of Education at the International Center of Photography. Massoni graduated with a MFA in Photography from Ohio University and BAs in Photography and Anthropology from Connecticut College. Her work relates to ideas of both real and fabricated memories and identity. She has exhibited internationally including The Print Center in Philadelphia, NIH in Washington, DC, Newspace in Portland, and the East-End Film Festival in London. Publications include ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media Art and The Photograph & The Album. She co-edited The Focal Press Companion to the Constructed Image in Contemporary Photography.
Instruments of Memory thanks all the women that shared their stories and the artists participating in this exhibition organized by Sarah E Webb.