The Semiotics of a Movement: Introducing a Visual Exploration of Reproductive Rights

Posted inCulturally-Related Design

On January 22, 1973, CBS evening news anchor Walter Cronkite looked into the camera and made an announcement: abortion was now legal in America. The segment covered the various responses to Roe v. Wade in a concise four minutes before moving onto school aid. It was straightforward. Unfussy. Black-and-white, for better or for worse. Nearly 50 years later, the Supreme Court overturned its decision in a media landscape very different to the one of “the most trusted man in America.” The choice over one’s own body and life now exists in the collective imagination as an emotionally charged collection of talking points. To say the word “abortion” is to conjure a shared cache of visuals.

Selections from this cache might run through one’s mind like a film montage: Lennart Nilsson’s photograph of a fetus; a wire hanger twisted into the cursive chant No More; Gerri Santoro’s back-alley abortion in the pages of Ms. Magazine; the term “pro-life,” once reserved for opposition to war and the death penalty; tidal waves of green bandanas filling the streets; Barbara Kruger’s iconic artwork for the 1989 Women’s March; a solitary sperm’s swim race reducing human reproduction to an archetypical hero’s journey. In all of this, personal experience is lost: the scares, misses, and loss; the guilt, shame, and hope.

The clickbait design of short-form media circumvents any thought on the part of the audience. These are shortcuts that seem simple on the surface, but are encoded to convey what Stuart Hall calls the “dominant cultural order.” They burnish political brands into voters’ minds and wipe the floor clean for candidates to step upon. Abortion is one of this era’s most contentious debates, heavy enough to bear the weight of political affiliations at large. If you are right, you are against. If you are left, you are for. Shortcuts, through and through.

I was on vacation when the news broke. On vacation in 2022— i.e., still highly attuned to my phone, and the entire world contained within it. I saw the verdict immediately, filtered through reactions in the form of 140 characters, memes, reels, gifs, and later: op-eds, essays, full reports. A stockpile of stimuli, built upon the intent to persuade. My friend and I spent the afternoon updating our feeds at an internet cafe on the outskirts of Barcelona. We fell into our presumed roles, and a familiar sort of nihilism, continuing to scroll into oblivion. Something managed to capture our attention: a series of Instagram stories where photo director Emily Keegin dissected the fraught visual history of the abortion debate.

How did the visual and written ephemera surrounding reproductive freedom come to be? How has the proliferation of this content managed to hide its motives within plain sight? 

In my 30-odd years of life, I have only known an America in which the right to choose was legal. Was. It has also always been a place in which my body is publicly contested, but as a blue-state city-dweller, I have had the privilege of knowing that I will maintain the right to choose. I think of this as I walk by the abortion clinic near my home. Outside, anti-abortion activists chant and hold up posters I never stop long enough to see, but I can clearly imagine them. 

Over the coming months, I will explore how the visual language of abortion has shaped our beliefs over time, beginning with the branding of the anti-abortion movement. This will involve examining shifts in a variety of subjects, such as religious beliefs, technological advances, media ethics, public mobilization, and artistic expression. 

It’s a lot— and I don’t claim to be an expert. Like you, I’m learning as I go along. But the rhetoric of abortion has become so familiar that we’ve lost sight of how it was planted, cultivated, and cemented with intent, rather than by happenstance. We have become habituated to the media surrounding us. Through this work, perhaps we will pause and scrutinize what we see, instead of allowing the attention economy to prey upon our various emotional impulses. Perhaps we will be better equipped to face the fight spawned by a small group of powerful people who wanted something entirely different, as so often is the case. Let us examine the archives and retrace how a woman’s body became politics’ bloody battleground.

Divya Mehra is currently a writer and artist-in-residence at NYU Tisch. She teaches classes on visual symbolism and experimental storytelling. She holds degrees in Art + Technology and Economics and previously worked in strategy consulting.

Her next piece in the series will address the manipulation of language and images on anti-abortion materials in the 1970s, as driven by the religious right. 

Header photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash.