It has been a year since the United States Supreme Court overruled Roe vs. Wade. Unknown sources leaked the draft opinion for the overturning on May 2, 2022, with the official overturning occurring on June 24. Months later, we discussed the importance of chosen freedom in artistic expression, analyzing the works of Georgia O’Keefe, Barbara Kreuger, and Laurie Simmons while investigating their insight on the overturning. When that piece was published, it was unknown what the future of chosen freedom would be.
In a country filled to the brim with discourse and outrage on the news, artists turned to creative expression as a medium for activism. A year later, there was an observed resurgence of earlier art styles dating back to the 1600s centered on plants and insects. Early biologists had their specimens illustrated in their natural habitat to depict their findings to wider audiences. As these biologists, who were called Naturalists at the founding of the discipline, progressed, more information on plants and animals became available—so much so that there was a difficult way to keep them all organized. How do you categorize a plant? By its color? Shape? Its point of origin? Its medicinal properties? So many pages of art and data, especially the New World as the Americas became discovered, and no way to organize them. Thus, the classification of species was born by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. It is because of him that the classification of organisms based on their genus and species became the standard for taxology, which is still used today. From this classification, we get the organization that kept the art style alive.
Around the same time, Maria Syllbia Merian’s conclusions continued to keep scientific minds on their toes—she always found things that disputed previously accepted claims, namely on species’ roles in the food chain. Merian’s work helped squash the beliefs in the 17th century that bugs spawn spontaneously from mud and rotting meat. In 1699 she sailed to South America, where she documented the plants, animals, and insects she found on her journey. From this trip, she illustrated predator-prey dichotomies in graphic detail, such as a tarantula feasting upon a hummingbird, which many criticized as being “unrealistic” only to be later confirmed as a harsh truth of nature. She excavated the incompassionate nature of our ecosystems while highlighting that human society was no different.
However, physicians have since discouraged the use of abortifacients as a reliable and safe practice, so please do not view this as an alternative if you live in a state without abortion access. I’m a college kid writing on Almanac entries and historical trends in art, not a doctor.
While a common trait in the early Naturalist art style included multiple plants and animals within the same image, artist Zanna Field focused on one subject for each work. Field focused on Pennyroyal while adding a sickle to the full image, the shining grey of the tool contrasting with the purple blooms, emphasizing the historical importance of the plant in health care while drawing attention to the consequences of cutting them down, and reducing access to them. They alluded to the discussions about Ben Franklin’s inclusion of pennyroyal and a recipe for an abortifacient in his writings. “There can be no equality without reproductive autonomy,” they continued. In folklore, the pennyroyal is observed to be of both feminine natures, ruled by Venus, and masculine, ruled by Mars. It also holds strong ties to Hecate, the goddess of midwifery and childbirth, though in ancient Greece, she became the goddess of the crossroads and the underworld.
In Merian’s painting of a Dragon Flower, she recounts the injustices faced by enslaved peoples and how they were the ones who told her about the plant’s abortive properties. Not only did her work emphasize the integral role indigenous peoples and servants had in the fruition of her findings, but she also elevated their voices to highlight injustices to enslaved peoples in the early 18th century.
Long after Merinan explored South America and elevated the voices of the indigenous peoples she learned from, Ben Franklin published a recipe for inducing abortion in the United Kingdom. In “The Instructor,” there is a section titled “Suppression of the Courses,” which refers to an allotted cycle of pennyroyal doses to cure the “misfortune” of an unmarried woman’s pregnancy. It also points to other known abortifacients, such as angelica. Though the Founding Father’s stance on abortion was largely concealed, scholars confirmed it was indeed he who included the entry, reinforcing the pennyroyal’s image as an abortion-inducing herb. Even still, this should not be interpreted as Franklin advocating for women’s rights, as he was more outspoken about being a womanizer than he was on his stance on abortion.
In addition to the Pennyroyal, Field illustrated the likings of the Magpie Moth, an insect commonly found in Australia and New Zealand. The moths are not used medicinally, but fireweed, the plant they commonly lay eggs on, was used both as a contraception and as an abortifacient.
Politically, in regards to reproductive rights, the United States has fallen back to the 1970s, but the artistic response to such a blow to bodily autonomy dates as far back as the 1600s. When the People are not supported by the institutions designed to dedicate their time to improving the nation, they will put their hands to the Earth for that support, just like our ancestors did. While these plants and animals are no longer viewed as the golden standard for medical care, their illustrations and their cells carry the history of chosen freedom in human society, and will never be forgotten.
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