Post-‘Roe’, conception is crucial for access to abortion. But it is far from e
Buffers. Draws milk. Forceps. These tools have dramatically improved reproductive health, yet they are rarely seen as great works of design.
Design motherhood, a new exhibition at the MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) in Boston, aims to change that. The show is based on a book of the same name by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick released last fall; it explores over 80 patterns that have defined the arc of human reproduction, from conception to postpartum.
At a time when access to abortion is restricted across the country, the exhibit offers clues about how design could help women bypass the system and regain some control over their bodies, but also on limiting these design interventions without systemic change.
In the United States and around the world, women’s reproductive health care is marginalized, resulting in high rates of unintended pregnancy and maternal mortality. Millar Fisher, who also curated the MAAM exhibition, says part of the problem is that discussing pregnancy and childbirth is still taboo.
Since women did not feel comfortable talking about issues such as termination of pregnancy, vaginal tearing during childbirth, and nipple pain from breastfeeding, there is no has not been a concerted effort to develop solutions. Often, the women had to band together to design products themselves, using the tools at their disposal.
As Millar Fisher and Winick worked on the book, they encountered much resistance from publishers who felt the subject matter was not important enough.
“We pitched it and pitched it, and everyone said it was too ‘niche’ a topic or it was ‘women’s issue,'” says Millar Fisher, noting that it’s only when she received support from childbirth nonprofits, including the Maternity Care Coalition in Philadelphia and the Neighborhood Birth Center in Boston — that the project started and MIT Press agreed to publish it .
Throughout the exhibit, we see examples of technologies and devices that have aided the reproductive process, including menstruation and contraception. It’s remarkable how often products have appeared by accident, rather than because a company was eager to meet women’s needs.
For example, there is an early tampon made by Tampax in 1936. During World War II, Kimberly-Clark developed a material called Cellucotton to absorb soldiers’ blood. Battlefield nurses realized they could use it while menstruating, prompting several companies to produce pads and tampons from the material.
The first epidural, meanwhile, was developed in 1885 by Spanish military surgeon Fidel Pagés Miravé to treat wounded soldiers by injecting cocaine into their spine. Later, doctors realized it could help people in labor and they started injecting a cocktail of anesthetics into patients’ spines before delivery. Today, up to 70% of births in the United States involve an epidural.
In many other cases, women had to work together privately to solve problems. Much of the exhibit is devoted to midwives, who have been responsible for delivering babies for most of human history.
In the United States, the practice was often rooted in the wisdom of Native and Black women. (It wasn’t until the 20th century that childbirth was moved from the home to the hospital, where it was presided over by physicians who were predominantly white men.) These women developed breathing techniques to relieve the labor pains and suggested hygienic practices, such as cleaning surfaces with alcohol, that are still used today.
The exhibit features a 1953 film titled All my babies, commissioned by the Georgian Ministry of Public Health as an aid to the training of midwives. It shows how black midwives provided essential care to poor rural women in the South and gave birth at home. It also shows two births.
“This is possibly my favorite part of the whole exhibit,” says Millar Fisher. “The director was inspired by the work of Italian neorealist directors and shot with non-professional actors.”
The shift from midwifery to hospitals highlights another big theme of this exhibit, which has to do with how government policy intimately influences women’s bodies and how life is brought into the world. Take, for example, the concept of the “baby box”. Beginning in 1938, the Finnish government provided low-income people with a cardboard box containing everything they would need after childbirth. This included everything from clothes and books to postpartum underwear for recovering mothers.
In 2017, the Scottish government developed a similar box to give to every baby born in the country. “It’s an example of great design, since the box itself can be used as a cradle,” says Juliana Barton, who helped organize the exhibit. “But it also reveals that design comes in the form of good politics. The government plays a central role in every step of the reproductive journey.
This could not be more true in our present moment, with the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. There’s a device from 1960 – at the very beginning of the exhibit – that reveals how far women had to go to take control of their bodies before abortion was legal. It is a vacuum foot pump that serves as a low cost abortion kit consisting of canning jars and plastic tubing. It was developed before deer was passed in 1973, at a time when women in the United States and around the world were fighting for access to abortion. It has been used in the first weeks of pregnancy by inserting a tube through the cervix until it reaches the uterus. Pushing on the foot pump created a vacuum, which would extract the contents of the uterus into the jar.
The curators of this exhibition point out that we are witnessing another wave of innovation in response to the fall of deer. In some states where abortion has been made illegal, discussions are underway about ways to make it easier for pregnant women to obtain medical abortions in secret. And on the legal front, activists are fighting for state-level legislation that will protect abortion seekers.
“As the exhibition points out, design is not just about objects,” says Millar Fisher. “It’s also the systems that impact how we live our lives.”