Comment: Abortion rights activists can make points viscerally

Anti-abortion protesters used gore to make their points. It’s time to use similar images to win back access.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

Two times during the birth of my daughter, I idly wondered if I might die. The first time was due to a severely botched epidural. The second was due to an infection that no doctors knew was an infection because no doctors performed an exam.

They dropped in during rounds and nodded benignly when I described breathtaking pain. “You did just give birth, you know,” one joked, as I tried to protest that, no, this was a whole different thing. It wasn’t until three days later, feverish and barely able to walk, that I went to my regular OB/GYN who told me my stitches had burst and I needed antibiotics, stat. She asked if I wanted her to take an iPhone picture of my whole down-there situation so I could see what she was talking about, and I said no thanks, just the drugs.

I should have said yes to the photograph. I should have made a poster of the photograph and brought it to statehouses around the country to hold it up for the lawmakers and judges who insisted that abortion is a bloody, violent, life-threatening procedure.

No, you dillweeds. Childbirth is the bloody, violent, life-threatening procedure. It is 14 times more likely to cause death than abortion, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists. And seeing as millions more women have just been sentenced to go through it, we should all see what it looks like in graphic, gory detail.

For the past 50 years, gory images have been the provenance of antiabortion activists: dismembered fetuses, tiny fingers, photographs of babies in utero at 25 or 30 weeks gestation; even though 93 percent of all abortions take place before 13 weeks, according to a recent Pew Research data roundup. Those that take place late in pregnancies are frequently due to fetal abnormalities that would result in stillbirth or near-immediate death.

Abortion supporters had cheeky slogans (“I dream women will one day have the same rights as guns”). But they also had the law on their side, so they didn’t need to fight dirty.

The bloody images antiabortion protesters used to characterize abortion care, misleading or dishonest as they were, tended to provoke a reaction that was visceral. And damned if they didn’t leave an impression.

“The argument for abortion, if made honestly, requires many words: It must evoke the recent past, the dire consequences to women of making a very simple medical procedure illegal,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in a 2019 article in the Atlantic. “The argument against it doesn’t take even a single word. The argument against it is a picture.”

This isn’t true, though. The argument for abortion could also be made with a picture. It’s a picture of the mutilated, bloody flesh that comes from a traumatic delivery or from a back-alley abortion. It’s a picture of septic shock. It is a picture of a dead woman.

“We who oppose the annihilation of our bodily autonomy ought to plaster statehouses with photos of our episiotomy incisions, our Caesarean scars, our intravenous-line hematomas, our bloody postnatal sanitary pads and bloodstained bedsheets, our cracked nipples and infected breasts,” wrote Kate Manning in a column in The Washington Post in May.

She went on to say that these complications are considered par-for-the-course in matters of childbirth, and that women who want children (of which she was one, of which I was one) assume these risks because they know some of them are necessary to birth a baby. She also went on to say that for those who do not want children, childbirth constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Whether you agree with her, what is unarguable is that the severity of childbirth has been sanitized in popular and political culture. It has been downgraded to a few comedic screams in movies (“You did this to me!” the wife shouts at her husband), or to a weary-cheery “It was hard, but worth it!” in polite conversation.

The dangers of illegal abortions have been sanitized, too. Fifty years have passed since we last trod this ground. The women who died of illegal abortions (and numbers are impossible to ascertain, because these deaths often went unreported or mischaracterized) have been confined to historical statistics rather than into stark, unflinching photographs that protesters might wave on the steps of the Supreme Court.

The current de facto image of a wire coat hanger with a line through it — referencing illicit abortions performed with household objects — is not going to be enough in this new world. It’s an aging code, and a euphemism, meaningless to those who don’t already get it. I remember spotting a decal with such a symbol stickered subversively on a dormitory wall and asking a younger relative if she knew what it meant. “It means,” she guessed, “that you’re not allowed to hang clothes there?”

One reason we have never fully pulled back the curtain on reproductive gore is because doing so would require something we have been cultured to find unseemly, offensive or whiny. It would require centering women’s pain. It would require a compassionate examination of women’s bodies; not as sexual objects or maternal Madonnas but as the scarred, pulpy battlefields that reproduction can cause them to become.

It would require insisting that women’s suffering matters and that fairly legislating against abortion necessitates everyone knowing exactly what kind of suffering mandatory childbirth will inflict. Maybe describing that suffering with images is necessary because words can’t capture it and many people simply can’t imagine it.

It gives me no pleasure to suggest this. I don’t particularly want to rant about my alarming childbirth story, and I don’t want to exploit other women’s bodies. Already, women are unfairly required to spend too much time demanding that they be seen as human beings. Over the weekend, a Twitter thread went viral in which a woman described, with detail both clinical and pummeling, learning at 17 weeks pregnant that her baby would not survive. She ended up having a medically necessary abortion.

I have no doubt that reading this woman’s account made people think about abortion in a different way. I have no doubt that writing it sliced out a piece of her soul.

But this is where we are. Roe is gone, and so we should throw out the euphemisms, the metaphors, the pictures of coat hangers along with it. I think this could be effective. It’s been effective before.

In 1964, a Connecticut woman named Gerri Santoro checked into a hotel with her boyfriend and a textbook, which the couple planned to refer to in order to self-perform an abortion. She was estranged from her abusive husband at the time, but she’d learned he was coming to visit her and their children and she was terrified of what would happen if he found her pregnant.

Her body was found the next morning by a maid.

Police arrived to photograph the scene.

Here is what you see in one of the police photographs: a naked woman on splayed knees, her body slumped forward, almost as if she is praying, more likely that she collapsed on the spot. Her face is mashed into the carpet. Her right arm is bent awkwardly to her side. Her buttocks are covered in blood. Her genitals are covered in blood. Bloody towels lie beneath her body. In one hand, she holds another towel, this one unsullied, as if she might have planned to use it to stanch the bleeding that could not be stanched.

It was at once intimate, clinical, horrifying and nauseating. When I first saw this photo, I went into the bathroom and dry-heaved.

Ms. magazine published it. In 1973, they put this photo in their pages for all the world to see, pairing it with the original Roe v. Wade decision and running under the headline “Never Again.” Editors said they wanted their readers to know exactly what was at stake. And readers were galvanized, because anyone who saw this photo would agree: This should never happen again. For a time, Gerri Santoro became the face of the abortion rights movement, until we mistakenly thought those rights were safe.

This is a terrible photograph. This is the kind of photograph that nobody should have to look at. This is the kind of photograph that the country needs to see.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.” Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHesse.

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