This week, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, one of the most influential abortion access cases to ever go before the court. At the heart of the case are TRAP laws, Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, which place extraordinary restrictions on abortion clinics and the physicians who work there — forcing clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers and requiring physicians to have admitting privilieges at nearby hospitals — regulations which are expensive and, in many instances, impossible to meet. Supposedly in the name of women’s health, these laws effectively exist to shut down clinics and deny women access to abortion. Should the law be upheld, Texas will be left with only 10 clinics. Ten clinics, for a state of 27 million people.
Just a few blocks from the Supreme Court, a national women’s advocacy organization set up a shipping container. It’s been there all week. Inside is an interactive exhibit, “No Access, No Choice,” where visitors can see videos of women telling their personal abortion stories, read about how abortion access has been challenged and defended throughout history, and share their own visions for what they think and hope women’s healthcare can be. To learn more about the mini-museum, I spoke with Karin Roland, chief campaigns officer at UltraViolet.
How did you all come up with this idea? What’s the backstory here?
When we knew this hearing was going to happen, and we knew that our members wanted a way to be present and to make sure that the real impact of losing abortion access has on women was known in D.C., near the Supreme Court, among people who would be arguing, hearing, and talking about this case, we commissioned a local artist to put together an exhibit. To really put, in front of all of D.C., what the impact of having no access and no choice really is for women.
You’ve got some prime real estate on the Mall. It’s just a few blocks from the Supreme Court. And even though the footprint of the exhibit is small, there’s something very powerful about the symbolism of a (temporary) monument to abortion access existing on that space. Was there any difficulty getting permission to set up shop there?
It was a lot of work to get that together. Fortunately, it is considered a park and permitting is possible for anything from advertising to events, so we were able to go through that normal process. The shipping container made the whole thing a lot easier; it could be assembled someplace else and then brought there. It took us weeks to build it in the shipping container, much longer to plan and design, [to figure out], what is the message? What are the points and hits in women’s access that we want to feature? What voices do we have to have in there?
How did you settle on this specific structure? It is sort of odd that it’s a shipping container — it looks out of place on the Mall, though I imagine that’s part of the point — but it makes sense when you’re inside.
There was a bunch of ideas bandied about — what sort of sculpture? What else could we do? Not all just installation. When we thought of the shipping container, we thought, people recognize shipping containers, and putting one on the Mall will make people do a double take. The idea is to make people want to see what it is. It’s incredibly convenient, and you can secure them overnight — you can close it and lock the doors. But it also just stands out and it makes people want to know more.
Some of the videos included in the exhibits were produced with other organizations, like Refinery29. How did you decide to include those collaborations?
There’s a number of groups that we work with pretty regularly who also have been collecting stories and have been producing amazing, wonderful content. And our goal here wasn’t to reinvent the wheel; it was to pull it all together. So we worked closely with allies and partners to bring their best content in.
So to borrow a word from my industry, you wanted an aggregated exhibit?
Yeah, exactly. A lot of it is original to UltraViolet, and a lot of it isn’t. It’s a collection from a combination of sources.
What element of the exhibit is most meaningful to you?
I think the artifacts were really powerful. But the thing that struck me every time I saw it was the step in the process that’s about visioning. Every time I see that blue sky and that cloud and think about the vision of what women’s health could be, I think: This is really about hope for women, about getting past this fight so we can move on to living our lives.
Were you worried at all about safety or security? Abortion can bring out a particularly vitriolic and scary segment of protestors. So much of the exhibit is interactive — asking people to touch screens, to write their own messages for the vision wall — and it would be, it seems, very easy for someone who wants to subvert your mission to do so within this mini-museum.
That was a concern, of course. And we did talk about, what happens if we get a bunch of trolls? What happens if we get protested, or worse? So we made sure security was part of the plan, and we hope it’s unobtrusive. But we also knew that, without being able to engage, this would be beside the point. There’s a risk associated with that, but there’s a reward. The idea is to bring the fight for access and choice, and what it means in real women’s lies, to life for people. And have them sort of touch it, feel it, see it, hear it, and be immersed in it. That just requires a certain level of risk, that someone who disagrees with our position on this issue won’t like it. That’s something we thought about. We built security into our plan. And we’re hoping for the best, and that everyone who comes will have respect for these ideas.
Are you feeling optimistic about the Supreme Court case so far?
The Supreme Court has made it very clear in the past that all women are entitled to the fundamental right to access healthcare, and we’re really hoping they stand firm. I was really encouraged by what I heard about the rally Wednesday. I know that people agree that women should have access to abortion and these laws aimed at shutting down clinics are unconstitutional and unfair. And I’m really hopeful that the Supreme Court will do the right thing.
What do you hope people take away from the exhibit that they might not already know? Assuming you are attracting an audience that has a baseline fluency in these issues, what do you think they’ll discover that they haven’t thought about before?
The artifacts over the course of history, those are things that were used by thousands and thousands of real women in an attempt to have an ability to control their own destinies. And I think seeing them is powerful. I hope that everyone in D.C. who has a chance to see them in person will be able to do that.
I was struck by how often the exhibit reminds visitors that abortion access has always been more restricted for women of color than for white women, starting with the way whites controlled black fertility during slavery and continuing through today. And it is not, as a general rule, women of color whom we see in the positions of power getting to decide what abortion access looks like, and who should have it.
I think that’s really true and it’s such an important point: That many of the people who end up being decision makers on issues of women’s reproductive health — lawmakers, judges, lawyers and politicians — they’re not actually in the positions most affected by those decisions. And it’s easy to think, “we can shut down these clinics and someone can go to the next one.” But it’s actually really hard to do that if you’re a woman in a low income job, without health insurance, without childcare, or reliable transportation. And that’s actually the reality for so many women. These laws impact women of color at such an extreme rate, and it’s easy for people to forget that, from a state house or the Capitol in D.C. when they’re debating.
I also think a really interesting point that I hope people take away is that abortion is not going to stop. It’s just, are women going to become sick and die at alarming rates from their own attempts to control their destiny? Keeping abortion safe and legal and acceptable and affordable, that’s how we keep women safe.
The videos of women telling their abortion stories are so powerful, and at the same time, I’m still annoyed that women have to get up and tell those stories just to have access to a basic right. That she has to prove how sad and emotional her situation is. Imagine if men had to testify before the Supreme Court about their right to have, like, Viagra, and they had to give these tearful monologues about their sex lives before they could get a prescription.
There’s a common theme in debating women’s health in public spheres of, if we ban abortion but we make exceptions for survivors of rape or incest, that’s okay. And it’s not okay! It’s not okay for our government to be deciding whether a woman can have a kid and what sort of trauma or terrible health risks she has to have in her life in order to be able to make that decision herself. I hope that we can get past the point where we’re debating which cases warrant the government giving you permission to get an abortion, and get to the point where we’re saying, we trust women to make these choices, period, the end.
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