On March 2, the Supreme Court will hear the United States’ most important abortion case in more than two decades, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The case will determine whether Texas’ most extreme abortion restrictions are constitutional, and if the laws are allowed to stand, 5.4 million women could be left with just a handful of abortion clinics to serve them.
In the weeks leading up to the hearing, pro-choice activists across the country are responding in a medium as revolutionary as it is traditional and as paradoxical as the court case itself: stitching.
Led by textile artist Chi Nguyen, activists will host stitch-ins to sew 5.4 million tally marks onto 10″ x 10″ swatches of cloth—one for each woman potentially affected by the ruling. Nguyen will then patch the swatches into a quilt outside of the Supreme Court on March 2. The project, in partnership with the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the Textile Arts Center, is called 5.4 Million and Counting.
“I wanted to invite the public to create a patchwork quilt to showcase unity and support [from] people across the U.S. for Texas women and abortion access,” says Nguyen. “Since there are two sides to the fabric, with every stitch you make, you are drawing one line for a woman in Texas on the front and drawing one line for yourself in the back.”
The Texas restrictions are part of an omnibus 2013 anti-abortion bill, HB2. According to CRR, the law’s requirements “bury clinics under medically unnecessary regulations” rendering legal abortion care “vastly more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.” The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have condemned HB2, stating that it “jeopardizes the health of women in Texas.”
In January, the CRR launched Draw the Line, a campaign asking the public to “stand with [CRR] against political attacks on reproductive healthcare and say: This is where I draw the line.” The digital campaign unites the written, recorded and filmed testimony of women in a single online platform and features celebrities reading their own and others’ stories of why reproductive healthcare matters to them. Contributors include Dascha Polanco of Orange is the New Black, Retta of Parks and Recreation, Mark Ruffalo, Jemima Kirke and hundreds of others sharing their stories with the hashtag #drawtheline.
Nguyen approached CRR and the Textile Arts Center about 5.4 Million and Counting at the beginning of the Draw the Line campaign, hoping to link her project with theirs. Both groups got on board with 5.4 Million and Counting right away, and stitchers are now invited to “draw the line” in the form of tally-marked quilt patches.
Women have met in sewing circles for conversation and commissary for hundreds of years. In the antebellum era, crafts and domestic-arts making offered both a medium and a space for anti-slavery discussion.
“Fiber art is often thought of as a ‘women’s craft,’” Nguyen explains. “As a woman of color, I think it’s empowering to reclaim this medium.”
The contradiction inherent in this act of reclamation is mirrored physically by the quilt. The haunting tally marks bring to mind an inmate documenting a prison term, day by day, on a cell wall. A “quilt implies a sense of comfort, safety and security, yet the lack of access to safe and legal abortion care is anything but,” Nguyen says.
Indeed, HB2 purports to protect women’s health. But since some of the law’s restrictions went into effect in 2013, at least 100,000 women and possibly as many as 240,000 have attempted to self-induce abortion, according to a study from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas.
“This is the latest body of evidence demonstrating the negative implications of laws like HB2 that pretend to protect women but in reality place them, and particularly women of color and economically disadvantaged women, at significant risk,” said Dr. Daniel Grossman, one of the study’s lead researchers, last November.
Nguyen’s project is a paradox reflecting a paradox, a metaphorical mirror facing a mirror in an infinite array that demands the viewer reflect on our culture’s historic resistance to a basic human right in the name of life.
Among her inspirations she lists Cat Mazza’s Stitch for Senate, an “initiative of knit hobbyists from 2007-2008 to hand-knit helmet liners for every United States senator.” The project subverted the tradition of wartime knitting in an act of protest, urging senators to bring troops home. The hobbyists mailed the helmet liners to every senator on the day of President Obama’s 2008 inauguration.
“I believe that 5.4 Million and Counting is a collective challenging of what ‘women’s craft’ means, as well as of the deceptive laws used against women to prevent them from having control over their own bodies, futures and lives,” Nguyen says.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this past weekend means that the court will hear the case without one of its most conservative figures. It is anticipated that the court will be divided and that Justice Anthony Kennedy may be the swing vote that determines whether HB2 will be upheld. A majority vote is required to overturn the Texas law.
The rally outside of the Supreme Court on March 2 is an effort to demonstrate the public demand for safe and legal abortion. Stitch-in locations can be found here, and folks interested in hosting their own before March 2 can get in touch with Nguyen at Lcnguyen [at] gmail [dot] com. Individuals who are not located near a stitch-in site are invited to sew from home and mail their swatches to the Textile Arts Center (address and instructions here) and to connect with other participants on social media through the hashtag #drawtheline.
Women and other genders are counting on the Supreme Court to tear down barriers to health care. They are counting their sisters, whose fates they are fearing. And they are counting themselves, looking at their numbers as a weapon in an arsenal for choice.
“Because this is a very public and collaborative project,” Nguyen says, “some might want to embroider one line and others might want to embroider all 5.4 million. I think that’s the beauty of it. When we surpass the original number, we ourselves become ‘and Counting.'”