In Portugal in 1974, the fascist dictatorship the ‘Estado Novo’, with its emphasis on the importance of the role of motherhood for women, was overthrown in a military coup and a new, left-wing government was formed, with a motto of ‘Democratisation, Decolonisation, Development’. However, views on the right to an abortion, which were heavily influenced by Catholic doctrine, still stoked widespread controversy.

In response, in 1998, a referendum was organised to determine views on the decriminalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, as long as it takes place in the first 10 weeks and is in an authorized healthcare institution. Yet despite the political changes, 50.91% of voters rejected the change, with a voter turnout of well under 50%. Naturally, the tight nature of this margin prvoked widespread discontent. In such a context, the Portuguese-born artist, Paula Rego decided to take action.

Much of Rego’s work has been marked by, and produced in response to, events in and from Portuguese history. For example, her tapestry depicting the Battle of Alcacer-Quibir, at which the King of Portugal, Dom Sebastiao, vanished and was presumed dead, and her 1960 painting, entitled ‘Salazar Vomiting the Homeland’. Her response to the No vote in the 1998 referendum is no exception to this trend. Between July 1998 and February 1999, Rego produced a series of ten pastels, which later became known as Untitled: Abortion Pastels. Unusually for the artist, the series is without a title, suggesting that she wants these highly graphic pieces to speak for themselves. In a subsequent interview, Rego stated that the series “was born from [her] indignation”, adding that she could “not abide the idea of blame in relation to this act. What each woman suffers in having to do it is enough.”

Each pastel depicts a woman – some are older, others younger – attempting to carry out an abortion by themselves. They are lying on beds, sat on chairs, squatting, in domestic settings – clearly not places where abortions are supposed to be carried out. But these women, who no doubt stand for Portuguese women in general, have no choice because of the country’s law. Either they choose to give birth, or they attempt to end their pregnancy prematurely and clandestinely. Some look away whilst others gaze out towards the viewer, making for an unavoidably disconcerting, voyeuristic encounter. Contributing to the voyeurism is the fact that some of the women are dressed as schoolgirls; Rego has spoken of this decision as being an attempt to reinforce the message of the works: it’s not pleasant, is it?

The women seem to be in pain. The vivid, bold colours of their clothing and their surroundings throw into relief the desperate nature of their situation. Indeed, the title of the works – Abortion Pastels – seems almost oxymoronic, in light of the conflicting connotations of the two words. While the former evokes physical and emotional pain, the latter makes the audience think of soft, delicate shades and scenes. It is as though the two should not belong together but, by bringing them into the same frame, Rego is surely not only trying to make the point that abortion can no longer be ignored, but also provocatively challenging the limits of what art can depict and how art should be viewed.

In 2007, there was a second referendum on whether abortion in the first ten weeks of pregnancy should be legalised. With 59.25% of voters casting their ballot in favour of the change, Portugal caught up with much of the rest of the world in relation to access to abortion.

A ground-breaking series, Rego’s Abortion Pastels challenge and condemn the cruelty and hypocrisy of Portuguese society and its policing and shaming of women’s bodies; a legacy of the fascist dictatorship that still casts a shadow over the country.

In keeping with her Iberian predecessor Picasso, who made the case that art should serve as “una herramienta de lucha” (“a tool of warfare”), Rego’s series underlines that the shame surrounding having an abortion does not rest with these women.

Instead, it lies squarely with the society they belong to, which forces them to seek alternative, often dangerous means of terminating their pregnancies, and indeed all societies that do not accord women the right to a safe and legal termination.

By subverting the Salazar regime’s patriarchal conception of womanhood, Rego is launching a feminist counter-narrative to that promote the state for many decades, inviting the viewer to reflect on the changes that have taken place over time with respect to the relationship between reproductive rights and religious belief.

Visually striking and innately political, this is art designed to shame the powers-that-be, and society in general, into action.