The Problem of the Public: Abortion in German Health Fair Culture (1925 – 1931)

Online talk by Caitlin Powell as part of the seminar series Cultures of Legality in Weimar Germany

Datum: 15. April 2024
Zeit: 10.00 Uhr bis 11.00 Uhr
Ort: Online via Zoom


The demand for reproductive rights was a matter of public contention throughout interwar Germany. §218 threatened mothers and doctors alike with a penal term; however, despite the draconian laws and severity of the courts, this proved difficult to enforce. German women were driven in ever-increasing numbers – estimated as many as one million per year by 1931 – to illegal abortionists.

Within this fraught political landscape, health fairs and hygiene exhibitions served as crucial sites for the public production of knowledge. Indeed, they demonstrate the intensification of what I am terming a ‘culture of natality’, namely the generation of cultural forms to support a public investment in birth rate. In 1927 abortion was legalised for specific medical conditions and the rhythms of a repressive, but relatively impotent, set of laws met with the need to represent and educate the public on abortion as a ‘new’, albeit limited, possibility. In this talk I will think through the constellation of historical display practice, socio-political, cultural and legal changes, and the ways in which these contours shaped the institutional display of termination – how abortion was visualised and understood through images.

Technologies of termination and the pregnant body itself were highly contested objects of representation in these spaces, undergoing multiple, rapid reconfigurations. This paper argues that the exhibition trends of health fair culture should not simply be understood as attempts to discipline the reproductive body, in Foucauldian terms, but to renegotiate the mechanics of discipline within a rapidly shifting legal and cultural landscape.

Caitlin Powell is a final year History of Art PhD candidate at University College London. Their doctoral research concerns the reproductive body in Weimar Germany, specifically, the intersections of the pregnant body and technologies of termination within the fields of medicine, law and visual culture. Their previous work on this subject was awarded the Association for Art History Postgraduate Dissertation Award.

The seminar series is part of the project Imagining Justice: Law, Politics and Popular Visual Culture in Weimar Germany, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

International Start Times: 09:00h BST / 18:00 AEST