In 1998 Portuguese born artist Paula Rego created a series of work entitled Untitled. The Abortion Pastels. Rego created her work in response to a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal, which was very narrowly defeated. Each canvas depicted the image of a woman undergoing an unsafe abortion.
Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, into what she describes as a repressive, middle-class Portuguese life in which women were highly encouraged to do nothing, while working-class women were forced to do everything. The painter recalls girlhood as a time of learning obedience to men, in addition to secretive and confused messages about puberty, sexual abstention and female propriety. Subsequently, after leaving 1950’s, then fascist Portugal, described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’, to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollected an era including coerced sex leading to secretive and often tortuous back street abortions. In turn, her Abortion series would be both inspired by her own experiences and that of her fellow female students and what she had witnessed growing up around the small Portuguese villages of her formative years.
While Rego’s series depicted a theme uncommon in a Western cannon of art often only concerned with the idealisation of womanhood, its harsh realism exposed a secret, yet very real world for women themselves. The artist, however, did not reflect any particular emotion, nor are her subjects portrayed as passive victims. In fact their eyes often gaze blankly outwards at the viewer, thus putting the emphasis of judgement, of guilt, of collusion, of pain, of torture on those passively spectating. The artist’s brutal images question the idea of ‘respectability’ in what she believed was a denial of reality for many women. Rego was enraged at her country’s inability to truly face up to the experience of women who would have abortions with or without choice, whether legal or not.
Rego’s Abortion series is an intentionally unnerving and uncomfortable experience as a result. When the series was exhibited in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Rego recalled the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her artworks. In turn, after being shown, her work is stated to have been integral in changing public opinion.
“It is imperative women have a choice” Rego stated.
Abortion laws in Portugal were liberalised to a greater extent on April 10, 2007.