Drawing the Line“Comics for Choice” Takes On Abortion Stigma

In Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, a young woman is coerced into having an abortion by her estranged husband. The protagonist drives to meet a strange man in a grocery-store parking lot, who jumps into her car and instructs her to drive to an unassuming house in the Los Angeles suburbs. Riding to an unknown neighborhood with a stranger seems like a huge risk, but there was no other way for Didion’s character to get an abortion.

In 1965, 200 women died after having illegal abortions, down from 2,700 in the 1930s. An estimated 49.3 million legal abortions were safely performed in the United States between 1973 and 2008, but even today the stigma of abortion still affects millions of women. The still possible repeal of Obamacare poses a very real threat to abortion access, which has some reproductive- rights activists wondering what will happen if women lost the right to choose. When, just three days into office, Donald Trump signed an executive order barring federal funds from going to international women’s care providers that offer abortions, one group of young people saw it as an immediate threat to their rights.

“I was watching Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and just getting outraged,” says Hazel Newlevant, a cartoonist and editor. Newlevant previously edited Chainmail Bikini, a comics anthology on the history of female gamers and the culture of sexism and misogyny in video-game culture. Like other Americans who have responded to 45 in creative ways, Newlevant collaborated with Whit Taylor and O.K., two friends from New York’s zine community, to create Comics for Choice. The anthology couples cartoonists with historians, experts, and real women to share their abortion stories in hopes of destigmatizing the topic. “We hope everyone can find something that helps them feel less alone,” Newlevant says.

MJ Flores was working in Kenya when she discovered she was pregnant despite using multiple forms of birth control. The Harvard graduate never thought she would have an unplanned pregnancy, or have so much trouble getting an abortion. As recently as 2010, abortion was illegal in Kenya, and access is also restricted in her home state of Texas. After going to great lengths to procure an abortion in Texas, she felt extremely lonely and wanted to talk to other women who’d been through the same process, but she didn’t know anyone who was willing to share their experience. In an effort to shatter stigma, Flores decided to speak out about her abortion in Comics for Change. “It’s amazing to see my story in comic form,” she says. “It helps me even more vividly relive my moments of strength overcoming the stigma.” 

MJ Flores in Comics for Change

Illustrated by Kat Farjado

One in three women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, but how often does it come up in conversation, even within sex education classes? Many women are unwilling to talk about their abortion experiences because it brings up questions that most of us would rather not discuss. (Such as: Why wouldn’t a woman want a baby?) Abortion can be perceived as a failure, although every person has a different reason—a shaky relationship, money issues, or work instability—for choosing to have one one. The anthology addresses that warped understanding. “It’s messed up that abortion care is a privilege and not a right,” Newlevant says. “I wanted it to be accessible in a way that a social-science textbook might not be.”

To achieve that, she enlisted the help of experts such as Rickie Solinger, an abortion historian who’s authored  11 books about the quest for women to have sovereignty over their bodies. Over the last 25 years, Solinger has consistently tried to answer the question, “Who gets to be a legitimate mother in the United States?” by writing about the history of abortion and hosting exhibitions related to women’s rights, including a 2006 exhibit at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California. “I believe strongly that visual images or representations are more powerful than words, and can be excellent and effective teaching tools,” she tells Bitch, which is why she quickly agreed to write a story for Comics for Choice.

Solinger wrote about being a single, pregnant woman in the days before Roe v. Wade, when women were put on trial for having abortions and subjected to questioning about their sexual preferences and partners. Women were asked, in courtrooms, how far their legs were spread, or why they had sex with men if they didn’t want to get pregnant. “Most women of childbearing age today were not alive when abortion was a crime, so I wanted to put it into context for them,” Solinger says. “People should live in a society that promotes dignity and safety.” Women who have abortions are often stripped of both, but a woman’s right to choose without being publicly humiliated or ostracized is crucial.

Rickie Solinger in Comics for Change

Illustration via Ally Shwed

While Solinger doesn’t share a personal story about abortion in the anthology, she examines the sociopolitical aspect of reproductive health and who is denied care—namely, women of color or women who can’t access birth control in the first place. While abortion is still inaccessible in many ways, women have always worked to secure reproductive rights for other women.

In 2015, Rachel Wilson, a freelance journalist working in the UK, watched a documentary about a group of women from Chicago who called themselves “Jane,” and began researching the group. What she found was enlightening: Between 1963 and 1969, the Jane Collective organized an illegal underground abortion service. Initially, the group worked by word of mouth to connect women with abortion providers, mostly men who charged exorbitant sums for the procedure. The Jane Collective wanted to meet the needs of women being exploited by abortionists, so they convinced a sympathetic professional to teach them how to perform abortions.

The Jane Collective from Comics for Choice

Illustration via Ally Shwed

Wilson wrote about the Jane Collective in November 2015, and then worked with an illustrator to turn the article into a comic for the anthology. “I needed advice from Alley [the illustrator] on how to adapt it to comic form, but I enjoyed it so much,” she says, “There is so much that you can convey through illustration that takes a lot less work than doing a massive longform piece on it.” Two original members of the Jane collective even gave her their blessing to illustrate their history. “They really enjoyed seeing themselves come to life in that way,” Wilson says. “When it comes to struggling for rights and activism, there are not a lot of solutions that you can bring about personally, and taking the law into your own hands is so powerful.”

Wilson shared the story of the Jane Collective for the same reasons the other women involved did: to raise awareness, decrease stigma, and make women considering or going through the process of abortion feel less alone. “Women’s ideas and contributions get written out of history a lot,” she says. “Reinserting these stories into the consciousness, and re-alerting young women—especially those who didn’t go through [illegal abortions]—to just how much progress has been made, and how that progress came about” is an important part of her journalism.

Art has long been used to raise awareness about social issues, including abortion, and Comics for Choice is an important inclusion in that canon. The anthology is an avenue for artists, writers, and those who’ve had abortions to fight for reproductive justice—and raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds in the process. Most important, Comics for Choice allows women to speak freely about their experiences, and hopefully, spark the public conversations that have long been silenced.

by Pia Peterson
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Pia Peterson is a freelance writer and part-time podcaster.

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