The John Hay Library’s exhibition gallery is currently occupied by seven glass cases containing books, posters, wrought-iron forceps or — in one instance — nothing at all. These displays are part of the library’s latest exhibition, titled “Ordinary Circumstances, Extraordinary Conflict,” which reflects on the history of abortion through archival artifacts accompanied by original scholarly commentary.
The Hay’s staff were inspired to create the exhibit after the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court Case, which overturned the decades-long upheld constitutional right to an abortion.
“Here at the John Hay Library, one of the things we think about a lot is how our collections can be used to contextualize current events,” said Amanda Strauss, associate librarian for special collections and director of the Hay.
The exhibit also originated in response to increased community interest in archival materials related to abortion after the Dobbs decision, according to Jennifer Braga, director of library communications and public programs.
The exhibit, which opened May 11 and will be on display until Aug. 24, consists of items pulled entirely from the Hay’s collections in medicine, extremist propaganda, poetry and Rhode Island archives, which showcase the fight over abortion from the 19th century to today.
The curatorial team, consisting of two faculty and one medical student, was assembled based on “a diversity of subject expertise as well as ideological position,” Strauss said. “This exhibition isn’t necessarily meant to take a position, but it’s not meant to be neutral either … it is meant to showcase a breadth of historical facts.”
Robert Self, professor of history, was one of the curators of the exhibit. Self explained that one benefit of examining perspectives on abortion throughout history is recognition that the issue has not always been defined by religion, as it is today. The exhibit’s first display case, titled “Professional Medicine and Bodily Autonomy,” discusses the 19th-century “contest over power” between the male-dominated professional medical community and female-dominated midwifery to control maternal healthcare in the United States. Self teaches HIST 1952B: “The Intimate State: The Politics of Gender, Sex, and Family in the U.S.”
The curatorial team dug through hundreds of documents, books and objects, discussed themes that emerged and organized material to compile the exhibit’s seven cases. One of those discussions was how to convey the “structural biases” of the archive — the experiences, voices and perspectives that are not represented in the Hay’s collections, according to Self.
In order to provide a space for the voices of those underrepresented by the archives — including people of color, enslaved people and members of the LGBT community, including trans men — the exhibit includes an empty glass case. Self said the curators also aimed to represent the “ordinary experiences” with abortion often not included in an archive that “tends to represent the fights and the politics.”
“One of the reasons why we call it ‘Ordinary Circumstances’ is to really emphasize that aspect — that this is a common, everyday occurrence for millions of people,” Self said.
These ordinary people at the center of the issue might not be vocal about it, said Sarah Fox ’89, clinical assistant professor of surgery at the Warren Alpert Medical School and one of the curators of the exhibit. “There’s a lot of passion, there's a lot of pain on both sides,” she said. “I think it would be nice to open up conversation instead of the constant political battle.”
Mikaela Carrillo ’21 GS, who has previously worked with Fox on reproductive health-related projects, was the third curator for the exhibit. She pointed to a 1984 speech by then-New York governor Mario Cuomo, included in the “Varied Voices” case, which offered an alternative approach for the pro-life, Catholic community to promote their values outside of the legal system.
For Carrillo, this is a “look at (a) pro-life perspective that is frequently lost.”
Strauss and Braga encouraged viewers to engage with the objects and reflect on the exhibit. What stuck out to Strauss was the “Precious Feet” pin, a symbol used by pro-life groups in the 1970s to represent a developing fetus, included in the “Polarizing Words and Images” case. Strauss recalled receiving the pins in the mail while growing up as part of pro-life groups’ mailing campaigns.
For Braga, what elicited the most “visceral response” was the two pairs of obstetrical forceps, used in the 19th century for difficult deliveries. “For me, just seeing a set of forceps and having had children … I have a visceral reaction to seeing those objects,” she said.
Attendees at the opening reception on May 11 pointed to five survey responses from the 1980s — administered by the Women’s Medical Center of Rhode Island after abortion procedures — as one of the most shocking items. The survey responses convey the “complex and paradoxical emotions” around receiving an abortion, according to the case’s description. In the surveys, patients note feeling a sense of loss and guilt, but also relief.
“I was shocked by how…overwhelmingly negative the emotions were,” said Kieren Malik ’25, reflecting on the surveys. “I think it makes a lot of sense. I think it can be difficult to hold the two ideas, that yes, this is something terrible to experience, and that it can sometimes be the necessary and right thing.”
Sonja Kapadia GS said the surveys made her “really emotional,” and also caused her to reflect on her position as both a woman and a future physician. Abortion “is going to affect (me) at some point in my career, and my life in so many other facets,” Kapadia said.
At the opening reception, Carrillo urged attendees to take a step back from the question of the legality of abortion when going through the exhibit. “No matter what your philosophical or your political beliefs are as it pertains to abortion, we can all sit with the complexity and the pain of it, and acknowledge that that’s there,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Robert Self as current chair of the history department when he previously held the position. The Herald regrets the error.
Haley Sandlow is a section editor covering science and research as well as admissions and financial aid. She is a sophomore from Chicago, Illinois studying English and French.