From London to Belfast: A travelling exhibition tells women’s abortion stories to end stigma
One in three British women will have an abortion during their lifetime, according to a survey by the British Pregnancy Advisory. Around 180,000 abortions take place in England and Wales each year, while 12,000 happen in Scotland annually. Despite the apparent regular occurrence of abortion in the UK, it is still difficult for women to talk about it openly, and the stigma persists.
That stigma is what My Body My Life is hoping to eradicate through a travelling storytelling exhibition. Going from city to city across the UK, the exhibition tells real people’s stories of abortion, whether as a woman who had gone through it herself or as someone who’d had a friend or loved one make that choice.
Using not-for-sale clothing such as t-shirts as well as storyboards, the wide range of experiences and emotions people face are told in an effort to make the abortion conversation normal, rather than the subject of hushed whispers.
“I didn’t want an abortion. I needed one,” one shirt says.
“We don’t earn enough money to keep my baby,” says another.
There are also video booths in the exhibition, where footage of actors recounting the stories of real women are played. The project is interactive in that it encourages anyone with an abortion story to write it down on a card and it then becomes part of the growing exhibition. As they travelled across the UK, it became clear that the exhibition, more importantly the exercise of writing down stories, was therapeutic for a lot of women. In effect, it evolved into a story-sharing exhibition as well.
Dr. Lesley Hoggart, researcher for The Open University and principal investigator for My Body My Life, told Prismatic during a Google Hangout discussion: “It’s been quite an eye-opener. We expected there would be lots of women coming who’d talk about their experiences and it might be quite challenging for them, but the extent of it has surprised even us.”
“That people would put in their forms and on their stories how much better they felt about their abortion having been to the exhibition, that they didn’t feel so alone, that they felt empowered, and they felt more comfortable,” she added.
Ending stigma, one story at a time
The exhibition, which started out as a research project about abortion among young women in 2012 by Hoggart and fellow researcher Dr. Victoria Newton, has travelled to four cities from August 2017 to February this year. They visited Edinburgh, Belfast, Oxford, and London.
Newton said the response they received was overwhelmingly positive, although with a topic as sensitive and divisive as abortion, they inevitably encountered opposition on the road.
Hoggart told Prismatic: “The only place where we really had significant hostility was in Oxford. Other places we had very limited hostility. And really the form it takes is people coming in and objecting to what we were saying. Not being overly aggressive, but talking about why abortion is a bad thing.
“The way we deal with that is by listening to what people have got to say and discussing the issue with them, inviting them to actually look at the stories in the exhibition to see for themselves how common abortion is, what are the different reasons why somebody might have an abortion.”
Hoggart added they held on expectation of changing the minds of anti-abortionists right away, but were optimistic about how people thought about the issue a little differently after going through the exhibition.
It certainly helped that My Body My Life chose to spread a message the old-fashioned way, by hitting the road and talking to people face to face, instead of bickering on social media. But what’s most striking is the impact of human stories based on real-life, often painful, experiences that are difficult to dispute.
“I think because the exhibition is grounded in real women’s stories, in their words, it is sort of quite powerful,” Newton said. “I suppose it puts the human into it.”
With an abortion referendum to be held in Ireland on 25 May, My Body My Life’s public engagement project proved timely, not just in sparking conversation but also in educating people in the UK. The hope is for change to be affected from a policy level down to a social level.
That entails amending the Abortion Act of 1967 to leave the choice of terminating a pregnancy to the woman, as well as changing the way young people are made to think about abortion. According to Hoggart, young people learn abortion through the lens of religion, which means they immediately seek to categorise it as moral or immoral. But they should instead talk about it in a practical sense and what they could do if it happens to them.
My Body My Life plans on going back on the road later this year to sustain momentum, with hopes of potentially linking up with universities, colleges, and even theatre groups. They have no plans of going silent.
Hoggart said: “There’s a vicious circle whereby abortion stigma generates this feeling that people want to keep their abortion secret, that they want to be silent about it, and then that in itself perpetuates and contributes to abortion stigma.”
Watch the full Google Hangout discussion with My Body My Life below:
Graphic by Jane Bracher
Google Hangout interview and video by Jane Bracher
Sub-editing by Megha Sharma