This Pop-up Museum Chronicles the History of Reproductive Rights in America
A piece of cotton root bark, a twisted metal coat hanger, and a pack of birth control pills are among the objects on display this week in a pop-up museum dedicated to the history of abortion rights and contraceptive access in America. Housed in a 90-foot shipping container in Washington, D.C., the museum was dreamed up by the national women’s rights group UltraViolet. The goal: Show how reproductive freedom has evolved—and in recent years, stalled, in the face of legal challenges and restrictions proposed by lawmakers.
The exhibit is parked on the National Mall until Friday, and organizers hope it will attract the attention of tourists, students, and legislators alike. Its proximity to the Supreme Court, less than one mile away, where the justices on Wednesday began hearing one of the most significant abortion rights cases in nearly a decade, is no coincidence.
“We conceived of this project when the court announced it would take the Texas case, the results of which will filter out to the rest of the country,” said UltraViolet campaign director Adam Bink. “And we wanted to demonstrate to the public what’s at stake in this case and how it can literally end access to [reproductive] freedom for tens of millions of women.”
The case involves a challenge to a Texas law passed in 2013 that requires facilities that provide abortions to meet the same building standards as surgical operating rooms. The law also stipulates that doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Texas lawmakers say the law is intended to protect women’s health and safety, but reproductive health advocates say if the law is upheld, it could result in the shuttering of three-quarters of the state’s abortion providers and enable other states to implement similar restrictions.
Bink said the museum is also a response to a misconception that access to abortion has been widely available since Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized abortion as part of a constitutional right to privacy. “We wanted to paint the history of before Roe v. Wade, and also particularly how the decision has been chipped away at slowly since 1973 and whittled all the way down,” he said, into what he called “this horrible experience intended to humiliate women or make access so unavailable that they’re forced into motherhood.”
Research published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that unintended pregnancies among women and girls age 15 to 44 declined by 18 percent between 2008 and 2011. The study’s authors credited the use of long-acting contraceptive methods such as IUDs for what they said was the lowest rate of unintended pregnancies they’d observed in three decades. At the same time, researchers observed large disparities in access to contraceptives among women of color and poor women in particular.
The museum exhibit seeks to illuminate some of those disparities with the use of charts, graphs, and videos. Infographics plastered on the walls show the distance to abortion clinics for women who live in rural regions of the country and the costs associated with a visit. Electronic tablets allow guests to look up abortion laws on a state-by-state basis. In a section of the museum plastered with digital monitors, visitors can watch clips from shows and movies including Trapped, a documentary that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year. The film examines the impact of the Texas antiabortion law and the pending Supreme Court case involving the lawsuit over it.
But there’s also an opportunity for optimism in what Bink calls the idealist section of the museum. Visitors are asked to respond to the phrase “I believe women’s health care should be...”, which is printed on a wall covered with images of clouds. “Safe,” “affordable,” and “non-judgmental” are just some of the dozens of words participants have scrawled on paper and stapled to the wall in response to the prompt. “We wanted to not just say ‘Everything is awful’ but to ask people what they think it should look like,” Bink said.
One of the more traditional exhibits in the museum, dubbed “How did we get here?”, presents a history of abortion and contraceptive access and use in America. Each of the items, displayed on a timeline dating back to 1848, has been used at one time or another as a method of either preventing or terminating a pregnancy. The cotton root bark, for example, was an herb sometimes ingested by enslaved black women in the mid-1800s in an effort to induce labor and abortion, according to UltraViolet’s research. Another item, a distorted coat hanger from the 1970s, was purchased from an antique exhibit and is “intended to symbolize the extreme measures to which women had to resort to maintain their personal health and decision-making” prior to Roe v. Wade, said Bink.
Lining the walls are cardboard cutouts of notable American women who have advocated for reproductive rights: Margaret Cho, Nicki Minaj, and Bell Hooks, to name a few. Each of the cutouts is accompanied by a quote from that woman about the importance of a woman’s right to choose. Minaj’s quote, for example, reads: “It’d be contradictory if I said I wasn’t pro-choice. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have anything to offer a child.” In another corner of the museum is a cardboard cutout of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the eight justices who will weigh in on the Supreme Court case this week. “Reproductive freedom is in a sorry situation in the United States,” her quote reads. “Poor women don’t have a choice.”