5.4 Million Women, Craftivism, and Holding Space in Bioethics


via my Instagram

Artist Chi Nguyen’s newest project, 5.4 Million and Counting, is a collective embroidery project that will result in a quilt that Nguyen is bringing to the Supreme Court on March 2nd (when the Supreme Court will hear Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a critical case on abortion access in Texas). The stitched tally marks represent the 5.4 million women of reproductive age in the state of Texas (although, not everyone who gets pregnant or needs abortion services identifies as a woman and not all women of reproductive age are at risk for unwanted pregnancies). She invites individuals to gather for stitch-ins or send in embroidered fabric to contribute to the project.  While stitching for the project, I found myself thinking about the people whose lives were being represented in these stitches and where bioethics and craft might meet.

Craft is a very literal way of taking matters into one’s own hands. It is learned and practiced in the body. It is a feeling more than it is a thought. While stitching the tally marks, I reflect on the care that each one requires. The physical act of pushing the needle through the fabric, pulling the loose thread, forming each stitch, is empowering. I feel like I am really doing and making something. I consider the feeling of making a medical decision, such as terminating a pregnancy, and the care and consideration it requires. I see this care and consideration first-hand. As an abortion doula, I support people through abortion procedures and create a nonjudgmental space for their experiences. I think about how these stitches create space for me to think the stories that have been shared with me. While the process is repetitive, the procedure performed similarly each time, they are all unique. It is somewhat obvious that people are different from one another and have different experiences, but it is nonetheless made tangibly clear to me through the stitches.

Craftivism, or using craft to further activist goals, has been a popular strategy for publicizing causes. One of the most well-known examples is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The Quilt’s 3’x6’ panels, meant to represent the size of an average grave, honor those who have died of AIDS. It is the largest community art project in the world. The Quilt provided a way for people to mourn the losses of their loved ones. In the earlier days of the epidemic in the US, mourning a life lost to AIDS was complicated. Lovers and friends were forbidden to attend funerals by the deceased’s homophobic families. With formal mourning ceremonies closed off, the Quilt allowed people to find their own ways of celebrating the lives of their loved ones. While the panel sizes are standard, how people fill them varies with the diversity of people impacted by AIDS. The panels hold space for people’s lives and experiences.

Collaborative quilting has also found its way into bioethics. Muhjah Shakir, occupational therapist and bioethics scholar, directed a quilting project to explore the impact of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Bioethics Quilt Project brought 15 African American women, aged 55 to 95, together to collaborate on a quilt and share their experiences. Shakir said, “I was inspired to do the quilt project because quilts tell stories, and it brought people together to talk about a difficult subject and the women who have been left out of the dialogue of the Study.” The quilt brought together the Study’s legacy and the community. It provided an opportunity for women, who were not enrolled in the study, to express how the research impacted them and their communities.

The idea of “holding space” is a nonjudgmental process of walking alongside and supporting someone while they move through whatever they’re moving through. It may involve giving guidance, but may also involve allowing people the space to make their own choices and come to conclusions in their own time. Holding space for people empowers them to take decisions into their own hands. It can be empowering to be able to make a decision in a supportive environment. Many discussions in bioethics involve performing ethical analysis and making recommendations, but I think bioethicists have a critical role to play in holding space for clinicians, participants, researchers, patients, and others to grapple with ethical dilemmas and make choices that they can justify. As a crafter, I use craft to hold space for me and my thoughts and feelings and experiences. As a doula, I hold space for people seeking abortions to feel and exist without judgment and to feel empowered and in control while medical professionals perform their procedures. As a bioethicist, I hope to hold space for people to grapple with ethics in their lives and practices and come to decisions that they can own as their own.


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