4000 Years for Choice: A Visual History with the Power to Transform

Heather Ault

What is the first image that comes to mind when you think about abortion? What about contraception? And, the history? What narratives are you most familiar with as a pro-choice supporter, and why does access to reproductive rights matter to you? What about the words used to describe abortion and contraception?

What is the first image that comes to mind when you think about abortion? What about contraception? And, the history? What narratives are you most familiar with as a pro-choice supporter, and why does access to reproductive rights matter to you? What about the words used to describe abortion and contraception? And, the spaces in which we engage in “choice?” As an artist, activist, graphic designer, and one who has had an abortion, I am seeking to transform the familiar feminist narrative of “coat hangers,” “Roe v Wade,” and “struggle” into a story that is infinitely more personal, positive, and powerful. 4000 Years for Choice also responds to the increasingly mainstream messages behind anti-choice campaigns, such as 40 Days for Life, by stating that abortion and contraception are ancient practices rooted in human history.

The 4000 Years for Choice project draws from a rich and collective history of women controlling their reproduction for thousands of years. As early as Ancient Egypt, medical tablets contained detailed instructions for abortion and contraception procedures. In every culture studied since, evidence of reproductive control practices has existed. These stories are in contrast to the popular understanding that abortion in the United began with illegal back alley abortions and legitimized through second-wave feminist struggles to pass Roe v Wade. In fact, abortion was legal in the U.S. up until the mid-1800s, when Victorian, Christian moralists pushed forward a national censorship campaign to rid the country of “pornography” and other sexual deviances. In 1873, the Comstock Act criminalized contraception throughout the country and Anthony Comstock himself sought to arrest Margaret Sanger decades later when she returned from Europe with “new” contraceptive methods based on practices dating back thousands of years.

Visit the 4000 Years for Choice project's website larger versions of the posters.

Visit the 4000 Years for Choice website for larger versions of the posters.

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Each of these historical moments is told through an iconic visual image that symbolizes the people and methods associated with reproductive control throughout our history. Philosophers, such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, midwives and abortionists, including Dame Trotula of Salerno and Madame Restelle, and activists, such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, are memorialized through their portraits. As are pictures of traditional abortion and contraception methods including abortive herbs, contraceptive plugs, home-made condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, sponges, syringes, spermicides, and original do-it-yourself abortion methods. All told, this narrative redefines the visual landscape of abortion and contraception. Rather than icons of coat hangers and protesting women, these images are approachable, curious, often funny, and reflect the domestic spaces of women’s lives… kitchens, bedrooms, and gardens.

Visit the 4000 Years for Choice project's website larger versions of the posters.

Visit the 4000 Years for Choice website for larger versions of the posters.

4000 Years for Choice also presents a new rhetoric for abortion and contraception, and reframes reproductive rights as something to be “celebrated” rather a battle in which we are always “fighting,” “defending” and “struggling” to win. Each history and visual symbol is framed through positive language, such as honor, empower, nourish, rejoice, cherish, bless, love, learn, praise, embrace, affirm, treasure, unite, and so forth. Language has the power to inspire and bring us hope, just as the “hope” slogan did during Obama’s campaign for president. In this way, the pro-choice movement can transcend the corner we so often feel backed into through celebrating the positive emotions and experiences associated with defining our reproductive lives.

Visit the 4000 Years for Choice project's website larger versions of the posters.

Visit the 4000 Years for Choice website for larger versions of the posters.

Finally, this project aims to bring political discussion into everyday spaces, such as our homes, offices, community centers, college campuses, art galleries, and women’s health clinics. Currently, pro-choice debate is channeled up to Washington D.C, where public policy is defined at the state, national, and international levels. But how do we engage in discussion in our communities and in what types of “safe” spaces? The 4000 Years for Choice posters bring history, art, and celebration into our daily lives. As an accessible “meme” on a simple printed page, they can be displayed everywhere and anywhere.

All of this aside, the singular goal of 4000 Years for Choice is to transform the “shame” associated with abortion and contraception into the richness of simply being human. Every woman throughout time has made these same choices herself, or has lived in a community where these practices were valued. Abortion and contraception are long-standing, necessary, and important women’s practices. As we learn this ancient narrative, our commitment towards social justice, gender equality, and reproductive freedom will grow even stronger in our lives!

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