Signs of Life
Metropolis Magazine|November/December 2019
Designers, curators, and entrepreneurs are scrambling to make sense of motherhood in a culture that’s often hostile to it.
Lila Allen

At their most extravagant, the tendriled seed pods of the Nigella damascena flower resemble the curled necks of swans in a Tunnel of Love. Its fringed, quick-growing blooms have long appeared in English cottage gardens, and in southern Europe and North Africa, where the species grows wild. In the United States you can purchase a packet of its seeds—around 2,200 of them—for about $6.

Nigella damascena is what herbalists call an emmenagogue—a plant that, when ingested, prompts the human uterus to expel its lining, whether or not it’s ready to be expelled. And also: whether or not something is growing inside of it. The flower’s commonly used sobriquet “love-in-a-mist” is actually one of two. Some people call it “devil in the bush.”

This fall, it lends its name to an exhibition at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Opened in late October and running through December 20, Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility examines the relationships between fertility, legislation, and the built and natural environment. Malkit Shoshan, the show’s curator, specializes in the architecture and urban planning of zones that have recently emerged from conflict, or are still mired in its depths. While much of her work has focused on Israel/Palestine, she’s now turned her attention to the U.S., to states in the Deep South and Midwest where so-called heartbeat bills are gaining political traction and redefining the public’s access to abortion—indeed, their very understanding of it.

In the university’s Druker Design Gallery, the curator has compiled research and documentary projects from designers, environmentalists, activists, and legislators that show how fertile bodies, including women’s own, are subjugated by schemes of culture and politics—a point we’ve known, though perhaps not seen couched in such naked terms. Early on, Shoshan illustrates the ways that reproductive knowledge and self-regulation, including the use of remedies like Nigella damascena, have been criminalized since the 13th century. Projects like Lori Brown’s maps of abortion providers in Texas, and documentation of Women on Waves (a group that provides pregnancy termination procedures just offshore from abortionrestrictive countries), offer evidence that this struggle is ongoing, and that restriction and resistance both can be spatially driven.

Love in a Mist comes at a critical time for American reproductive health. Earlier this year, the Trump administration finalized a rule that aims to make comprehensive changes to Title X, a nearly 50-year-old program designed to assist uninsured and low-income individuals in family planning. Although Title X funds do not pay for abortion, the rule would prohibit grants to U.S. health-care providers that offer abortion services, or even referrals for abortion—a procedure that is legal in this country. The American Medical Association calls it a gag order. Federal courts have blocked the restriction, but as of September, nearly 900 clinics had already lost funding.

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