How Women Artists Are Responding to the Overturning of Roe v. Wade

Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Marilyn Minter, and more weigh in on the Supreme Court’s decision, which was met with outrage and protests from women and activists across the country.

“Untitled (Your body is a battleground),” 1989, by Barbara Kruger. Collection of the Broad, Los Angeles

On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court overruled the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, effectively eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in the United States. The decision, which leaves states free to outlaw abortion, will likely transform American life and reshape the nation’s politics. It also upends nearly 50 years of reproductive rights and will result in total bans on the procedure in about half of the states thanks to trigger bans that have already started taking effect. The reversal will define the legacy of former President Donald Trump, who vowed to elect Supreme Court justices that would overturn the decision. 

“After today, young women will come of age with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers had,” wrote Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in their searing dissent. Experts also noted that access to abortion is inextricably linked to racial justice, and that women of color are more likely to suffer under an abortion ban. Expectedly, public reaction was swift and unflinching. Outraged protestors immediately gathered outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC, and across the country, chanting “This decision must not stand / Legal abortion on demand.”  

The decision, while shocking, wasn’t entirely unexpected. (In May, Politico published a leak of the draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that presaged the Supreme Court’s reversal.) So says the feminist artist Barbara Kruger, a longtime pro-choice activist and one of the art world’s most indelible voices in the abortion rights movement, who responded to the leak in a New York Times op-art piece that reads “If the end of Roe is a shock, then you haven’t been paying attention.” She continues: “The end of Roe is the result of the Republicans’ relentless campaign to restrict reproductive rights and control women’s bodies. Many of the Democrats have been incapable of responding forcefully, and only recently has the left begun to understand that the contestations around gender, race, and class have to be engaged simultaneously and not siloed into rigid hierarchies of concern.”

Kruger isn’t the only artist to weigh in. Jenny Holzer has been outspoken about the anxieties of modern life since the ‘70s, largely through her eerily prescient political Truisms that originally were presented on billboards before being emblazoned on T-shirts, postcards, and benches. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, she launched an NFT auction of an unconventional artwork: a 2021 tweet by the ACLU’s Gillian Branstetter that notes similarities between her Truisms and ticker text on a Tucker Carlson Tonight segment about Covid-19 vaccines (“Making an informed choice regarding your own body shouldn’t be controversial”). Her most recognizable phrases (“Abuse of power comes as no surprise” and “Listen when your body talks”) remain just as urgent today.

Following the Politico leak, many artists expressed their shock and disbelief. “We need to mobilize at the polls in [the midterm elections] in November,” feminist artist and activist Marilyn Minter, whose art has long embraced political subject matter, told the Art Newspaper. We need to be working relentlessly to vote out every Republican we can. This is not a time to complain about Democrats.” The Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, who died earlier this month, is remembered for her powerful paintings of women in backstreet clinics to help swing Portugal’s abortion debate in 1998. “The rich will find a safe way but the poor women are the ones who will suffer most,” she said following the leak. “There has always been abortion and there always will be. Desperate women take desperate measures.” 

“Untitled No. 8” from the Abortion Series by Paula Rego

The Supreme Court’s decision brings to mind the long-term mission of the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous female artist collective devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. Shortly after the trailblazing group formed in 1985, they began culture jamming campaigns in the form of posters, books, and public appearances—often with a dash of humor—to bring these issues into wider focus. In a rare roundtable discussion hosted by Surface in 2018, they spoke about how their fight is never really over: “We see big progress, and we feel optimistic about change,” an anonymous member said. “Then, all of a sudden, we wake up in the middle of a nightmare and realize, Wow, everything is the same, and there is a viciousness out there that still seems alive. It’s painfully funny—and painfully unfunny—how this group is still fighting the same fight. It’s just changing to be in tune with the times.” 

While pro-choice lawmakers scramble to overturn the decision, there are ways to take action. We suggest donating to organizations such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and SisterSong, the country’s largest multi-ethnic reproductive justice collective. NARAL, which has been fighting for pro-choice rights since before Roe v. Wade, has helpful fact sheets, information about political track records, and breakdowns of state laws. The ACLU also shared a number of ways to get involved.

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