Artist Alina Bliumis was working in her West Side studio on June 24, 2022, when she heard a news segment announcing that the Supreme Court had struck down Roe v. Wade. She immediately embarked on a new group of paintings. Her now-completed series Plant Parenthood, on view at Situations Gallery in Manhattan’s Chinatown through April 3, depicts plants that women have used to terminate pregnancies for hundreds and thousands of years.
When Bliumis heard the verdict, she had just finished reading a book that discussed peacock flower, an abortifacient plant used by enslaved women in North America and the Caribbean. These women concocted a tea from the flower’s leaves, stems, and seeds.
“Two hundred years ago, before official medicine, before male doctors, women took care of their bodies themselves with herbal medicine,” Bliumis told Hyperallergic. “It was healers, witches, nuns. It wasn’t men’s business at all.”
As Bliumis began researching other plants like the peacock flower, she came upon abortifacient plants that span centuries and the globe. In the writings of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German nun who prescribed medicines to end pregnancies, Bliumis learned about asarum, a low green shrub sometimes referred to as wild ginger. In her depiction of the herbal remedy, a deep purple flower expands across one of the wood panels she uses throughout her 24-part series. A void encircled by tooth-like shards rests at the plant’s center.
In many of her paintings, Bliumis molds her plants into the shapes of sexual organs, emphasizing and morphing their human elements until they become lively creatures. By sexualizing them, Bliumis said, she could make her flowers more than just beautiful objects — instead, her plants would appear as active as the ingredients hidden inside their leaves, stems, and petals. Bliumis is finished with her plant series for now, but she may add to it in the future in response to the changing political climate and her ongoing research.
Bliumis also paints plants that line grocery store shelves and roadside fields, such as parsley, saffron, and Queen Anne’s lace. She says she is interested in revealing the “hidden knowledge” of these familiar flowers. Still, abortifacient herbs are understudied in the scientific community and can be dangerous. In 2018, before abortion was legalized in Argentina, for example, a woman reportedly died of septic shock after using parsley to terminate a pregnancy. Her story is far from unique among pregnant people who suffer death or complication in places where abortion is not legal or easily accessible.
In recent weeks, access to the FDA-approved abortion medication mifepristone, has come under threat. Walgreens stated it would not sell the pill in 20 states where conservative lawmakers could press charges against the company, even where abortion is still legal.
“For some reason, I’m not surprised,” Bliumis said. She drew attention to the life-threatening implications of abortion bans, which force women to receive illegal and unsafe procedures. Bliumis also pointed out the global scale of the problem: Out of the 73 million abortions that occur each year, 45% are unsafe. In the United States, 29% of women now live in states with restricted access to abortion.
“We have to fight for this again,” Bliumis said.