My Body My Life Exhibition Aims To Challenge Abortion Stigma

Danielle Roberts tells us everything we need to know about the new ‘My Body My Life’ at Ulster University.

This week Ulster University will host an exhibition which aims to use clothing to tell the stories of people who have had an abortion. Put together by a team of academics, artists and activists the exhibition has travelled from the Edinburgh Festival, and will continue to London after its stop in Belfast.

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Around 200,000 abortions take place annually in the UK, and around 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Roughly 1000 women a year travel from Northern Ireland to Great Britain to access abortion healthcare that is not available here due to our extremely restrictive laws. This exhibition has gathered the experiences of women and pregnant people and is sharing them in an unconventional way. The Unique Art and Design Shop on the ground floor of the UUB Campus is currently full of racks of clothes, each bearing a statement from someone who has had an abortion. On closer inspection the clothes’ labels give more details about that particular abortion seeker’s experience. Ranging from unplanned pregnancy, to failed contraception, and medical complexities space is made to share some of the many reasons why someone may want or need an abortion.

Drawing on academic research the exhibition showcases personal stories rather than statistics. Dr Fiona Bloomer, lecturer in Social Policy at the Ulster University, School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, said: “This exhibition is a fantastic example of how academics can engage with the public about their work. My Body My Life brings this important research into the community, and will broaden public understanding of abortion, a subject that affects so many of us but about which we are often silent. Over the past 50 years, the Abortion Act has enabled thousands of abortion seekers from Northern Ireland to access safe services in England, largely but not completely ending the period of backdoor abortions that injured so many, and killed others. It is timely for us to reflect on the positive impact the Act had, and to think about whether it needs amendment to further ensure women and pregnant people retain control of their bodies and their lives.”

The traveling exhibition is complemented by work by Belfast Based Artist Emma Campbell, who is co-chair of Alliance for Choice an organisation campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion. Campbell raised the issue of stigma around accessing abortion, : “Alliance for Choice recognise the multiple barriers that abortion seekers face, as well as health, financial, childcare, disability, domestic violence and immigration status we cannot underestimate the effects of stigma. Before people can even begin to address the practical issues that travelling to England or ordering illegal pills entails, they must grapple with the specific societal stigma in Northern Ireland that still assumes all pregnancies must lead to births and wishes to force people to stay pregnant against their will and to the detriment of their physical and mental health, to achieve that aim.”

The exhibition is very interactive, with people browsing racks of clothes and choosing which statement to read more about. The racks are themed around experiences of finding out about a crisis pregnancy, making the decision to have an abortion, and reflections on the experience overall. Numerous stories of women from Northern Ireland are included in the exhibition and accompanying booklet, with all too common stories of clinic protestors and journeys to England. There is also the opportunity to watch actors tell the stories of participants in the academic work. In intimate booths, individuals can watch powerful retellings of very personal stories in a space that allows for reflection, and hopefully empathy, on the part of the viewer. Visitors can choose to share their own abortion story in what is a welcoming and non-judgemental space. There are already several handwritten additions to the exhibition.

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This sharing of the stories of people who have had an abortion, told in their own words, can provoke a conversation around abortion in a way that entries the people who have actually experienced it. In the ongoing campaigns to decriminalise abortion across the UK, and to bring free safe and legal abortion to Northern Ireland, it is precisely those perspectives that we should be considering.

My Body My Life will run at the Unique Art and Design Shop, Ulster University, Belfast Campus, from 6-9th December, including Late Night Art on the 7th. For further information visit: http://mybody-mylife.org , you can follow the exhibition’s social media on twitter and Instagram.

Images by Emma Campbell

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