The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cartoonists passionately take on the Supreme Court’s abortion decision

(Liza Donnelly)
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Liza Donnelly was a high-schooler in Washington, D.C., in 1973 when nearby, the Supreme Court passed the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion — or, as Donnelly puts it, “when women were finally given autonomy over their bodies.”

The future political artist and writer understood the significance. “The ruling was part of the cultural fabric I was soon to enter as an adult; I felt free to live my life as I wanted.” Now, however, the New York-based creator is responding strongly because “many women will not have that freedom.”

Donnelly, who contributes cartoons to the New Yorker, was absorbing how a Supreme Court decision Friday on Mississippi’s restrictive abortion law, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, led to the court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, leaving states free to outlaw abortion.

“I felt sickened,” she says. “I have done many cartoons about women’s rights. This time, I felt a strong urge to express outrage, fear and sadness.”

As she decided how to put those feelings into art, Donnelly considered that she could skewer antiabortion activists or conservative justices or supporters of Donald Trump — or could draw women “yelling at the top of their lungs demanding freedom.” Instead, she chose to render what was at the forefront of her mind: “fear for our democracy.” She drew a staggered Lady Liberty.

“Like me, I imagined she felt punched in the gut, taken off balance, in pain, insulted and crestfallen,” she says. “However, like many other women, Lady Liberty will again stand strong for the principles on which our country was founded.”

Donnelly was among many artists who published their powerful reactions over the weekend — some of whom also turned to iconic American symbols.

“I was trying my best to channel anger into action, reflecting on how this decision affects the health, rights and well-being of very many,” says Juana Medina, an artist and author based in Fairfax, Va.

In her image, “Lady Justice is crying, the balance scales unsettled. She’s caring for babies and children of multiple ages, including a pregnant child,” Medina says. “I realized I couldn’t finish the drawing and left it just as pencil traces — uncertain, like our future.”

Pia Guerra drew two cartoons: In one, a Republican elephant pops champagne in celebration while standing over a bleeding woman’s motionless body; in another, Death as apocalyptic horseman grips a scythe topped by a coat hanger — that symbol of unsafe abortions that visual artists employ as shorthand for imperiled reproductive rights.

Watching the news, Guerra saw “conservatives actually celebrating this ruling” with “not even a little pretense of solemnity — just full-on laughing in the faces of women. They don’t give a crap about those who need this health care, that there are women right now being diverted out of state for lifesaving treatment because hospitals don’t want to risk being sued.

“That level of callousness only says this is in no way about ‘protecting the unborn,’” the Vancouver, B.C.-based artist adds, “but about punishing women for daring to claim autonomy. It’s disgusting.”

Ann Telnaes, a Washington Post political cartoonist and animator, drew a decapitated woman whose body is marked “property of the state.”

“Creating the cartoon was a direct expression of my anger and belief that because of the Supreme Court majority’s religious agenda, American women are now officially second-class citizens, and their bodies are controlled by the state,” Telnaes says. “This country is a democracy, not a theocracy.”

By contrast, Lisa Benson rendered a religious theme that supported the decision.

“The Supreme Court is correct on this one. There is no constitutional right to abortion,” says the California-based syndicated cartoonist. “Now it will be up to the states to decide whether abortion will remain legal and available. Some will cheer the decision, others will be outraged, but I’m pretty sure God is smiling right now.”

Meanwhile, political cartoonist Jen Sorensen posted to social media her comic from 2019 that has proved accurately predictive. Her six-panel strip, titled “End of the Roe,” depicts stages of perpetually minimizing the signs that Roe v. Wade would soon be overturned.

“What inspired the cartoon was a sense of deep frustration over watching reproductive rights being chipped away year after year while many seemed to look the other way,” says Sorensen, noting that she had been “profoundly alarmed about the future of the Supreme Court for a while.”

“Like most people, I knew this decision was coming, so I wasn’t surprised when it was announced,” she says. “But a few hours later, the full weight of it suddenly hit me. Witnessing this extremism is deeply disturbing.”

Here is a sampling of how some other political cartoonists reacted to the news:

“I noticed on social media that folks were commenting about offering women rides to other states. I wondered what an app or service for that might be called when the word Ub-Her came to mind. After that it was simply a matter of coming up with the image.” — Tim Campbell

“I wanted to capture how quickly things can turn for the worse, as women’s rights have been basically overturned. … Rich women will be able to get abortions whenever they want. This is unjustly aimed at the poor and women of color — already underserved [populations].” — Lalo Alcaraz

“The radical Republican majority on the Supreme Court is illegitimate. It was appointed by two presidents who lost the popular vote. … All three Trump justices misled the Senate about their intentions toward Roe. ... They’re Federalist Society vandals, planted on the court to revoke the unenumerated rights the courts recognized during the 20th century. If Justice Thomas’s words are foreshadowing, they’ll be coming for marriage equality, contraception and far more. This ill-gotten majority’s actions and intentions are obscene.” — Darrin Bell

“Taking the group photo of the Roberts Court from last October and replacing the judicial robes of the three women on the court with the uniforms worn by the oppressed women of Gilead seemed fitting. … There was something about the stark, grim image I used that seemed to genuinely reflect my feelings about the turn our country had just taken.” — Clay Bennett

“I was playing around with ideas and came up with the ‘Equal Justice Under His Eye’ line. I thought it a strong message about the slow merger of church and state that is at the heart of the ruling. ... I’m worried that with this court, we’re going to run out of frightening analogies.” — Mike Thompson

“Things are bleak. I wanted to do a cartoon that was hopeful and shows a way forward.” — Mike Luckovich