Abortion advocacy improves mental health, activists say

The storefront window to a gallery says, "Abortion is not a crime." Next to it are giant inflatable sculptures painted in hues of blue, pink and purple.
Giant, painted inflatable sculptures created by Chicago-based artist Claire Ashley are some of the featured pieces at “For Those Without Choice,” an exhibition at Weinberg/Newton Gallery in River North in partnership with Planned Parenthood of Illinois. (Alexa Erbach/MEDILL)

By Alexa Erbach
Medill Reports

Almost a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, many states continue to fight for abortion access while 13 have already banned most abortions. Three of those states include Wisconsin, Missouri and Kentucky, all of which border Illinois. 

As local activists in Illinois fight to secure safe access to abortions, especially for those living in states without it, some say advocacy efforts also help their own mental health during uncertain times when reproductive rights are challenged.



[People talking at gallery]

River North’s social justice gallery Weinberg/Newton was buzzing with excitement on opening night over its newest exhibition, “For Those Without Choice” — a partnership with Planned Parenthood of Illinois to explore the power of advocacy through art.

Erbach: What do you think about the exhibition so far?

Gallery attendees: It’s amazing, I love all the work. I love everyone’s interpretation of choice. You know, I think it’s like hard to kind of put into words the kind of sadness and disappointment, and so I think that seeing things like objects or ephemeral objects or like, you know, art objects is a way of kind of way of distilling emotional states.

Claire Ashley is one of the featured artists who created painted inflatable sculptures, decked to the nines with …

Ashley: Jewelry, earrings, nipple rings, necklaces, bikinis, thongs.

She says the bold characters she creates changes the way she thinks about herself.

Ashley: Trying to talk about my work through a feminist lens … and sort of taking up space as a female artist in the world and trying to be, again, as large and gregarious and obnoxious as I possibly can.

But if art affects both the audience and the artist, and art is advocacy, then how can advocacy work heal one’s own mental health, when news like this …

News clips: “The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade.” “What this means to women is such an insult.” “That they have eliminated a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.”

Makes you feel…

Gallery attendee: Heavy and dark. I feel like most of the dialogue or conversation that I’ve heard around abortion has not been very bright.

Licensed psychotherapist and former Northwestern professor Joyce Marter has been working with clients for over 25 years. She says that advocacy work does more than help improve access to reproductive rights. It also improves access to inner peace.

Marter: During this time many women are feeling marginalized, and that negatively impacts self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Getting involved in advocacy work is empowering. When you’re in community with others, there’s validations, there’s normalization. Advocacy work can be tremendously healing, especially for people who have been traumatized. And this is traumatizing.

Planned Parenthood volunteer Shimara, who pounds the pavements of Chicago to inform community members about their rights, agrees that her work is about so much more than getting signatures.

Shimara: We basically are professional people who get ignored. But that like 2% to 3% of people that we are able to connect with and get in touch with, it makes a world of a difference, you know? Just out here making a personal connection when people not only are you actually making change, who feel that change, you know, what I’m saying? You know, that this is OK, not a lost cause.

Addie Zwick is a program manager with Planned Parenthood of Illinois. She says that when things are happening at a high level like the Supreme Court, the idea to help can feel a bit out of reach.

Zwick: You can feel a little bit helpless, I think, kind of like down here at just the individual level being like, well, what, how I can’t do anything about this decision that has been made. But you can. But you can’t necessarily directly combat the Dobbs decision. But you can do things at the local and state level.

One way you can get involved? Lobby Day, when volunteers will go down to Springfield on May 3 and get trained on how to speak with their legislators on women’s health care. Addie says the day is just as much about the volunteers as it is about the lawmakers.

Zwick: So I think it can be really empowering to feel like you suddenly like you have a voice, you have this person’s attention, at least for like 15 minutes. And you get to make an impact. So it can help make sense of the chaos a little bit because it gives you a tangible thing you can do and feel like you’re making difference. Because you genuinely are. 

But sometimes, Addie says the word “advocacy” can feel daunting, and you may think you have to have a lot of free time or money to make a difference. Joyce Marter says, that’s simply not the case.

Marter: Advocacy work can occur on so many different levels. So even how we speak and the words that we choose is advocacy. How we represent ourselves and how we treat others is advocacy.

Which means that just taking in other people’s work, like the art at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, is beneficial …

Gallery attendee: I think I’m enjoying just seeing, I guess, different processes of metabolizing a moment in culture and the different takes on a collective experience.

And if you’re still struggling to find peace amidst the chaos and confusion surrounding abortion access, Joyce says, take a breath…

Marter: There’s a technique called square breathing. It’s very simple. Exhale out. And inhale to the count of four. Hold, two, three, four. Exhale, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four.

The “For Those Without Choice” exhibition will be on display through April 15. To find other ways to volunteer, visit Planned Parenthood of Illinois’ website. 

Alexa Erbach, Medill Reports

Alexa Erbach is a social justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexa_erbach.

Editor’s note, March 30, 2023, 7:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the name of the exhibition to “For Those Without a Choice” and to correct the date of Lobby Day for Planned Parenthood Illinois to May 3.