speculum: abortion, birth and motherhood

Alice Proujansky

2013 - Ongoing

United States

Women in the United States lack the stories that would help us contextualize birth, tending to discuss it in extremes of disgust, fear or countercultural transcendence, and abortion pictures are usually gory and inaccurate propaganda. Viewers still cringe at images of a woman’s naked body engaged in work unrelated to performative sexuality.

And while the United States glorifies motherhood – vice president Mike Pence calls his wife “mother” – we don’t provide the healthcare, childcare or maternity leave that make motherhood viable. This is the only developed country that doesn’t provide paid family leave, and the only one with a rising rate of maternal mortality.

So I began photographing women’s reproductive experiences throughout my own pregnancy and early motherhood. What is the reality of abortion, a controversial but routine procedure, and what are the stakes? Is birth medical, dangerous, animal, spiritual? How do new mothers integrate work and motherhood? I photographed un-medicated deliveries, epidurals, home birth, water birth, hospital birth, cesarean sections, still births and terminations.

In 2011, twenty-one percent of all U.S. pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) ended in abortion, but the procedure is cloaked in judgment and hyperbole. So I chose to look directly at this often-hidden aspect of reproduction.

I learned from healthcare providers like Dr. Katharine Morrison and nurse Kayla Jones, a single mother who has had four abortions and one water birth. This isn’t unusual: 60% of women who have abortions already have children. The pair provide “full-spectrum reproductive healthcare” in a combined abortion clinic and birth center in Buffalo, NY whose founder was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 1998. Morrison and Jones understand the decision to terminate a pregnancy and the choice of a birth approach as inextricably linked by the necessity of female bodily autonomy and respect.

Photographing birth showed me the importance of providing women with unbiased information and evidence-based, respectful birth approaches. One morning, I dropped my baby off at daycare and walked to photograph Jen Carnig having a baby at home. She showed her husband exactly how to hold her, then worked powerfully through rolling contractions. Later, I followed Carnig and other mothers as they went back to work shortly after their babies were born, pumping milk and answering emails through a sleepless haze.

In looking at birth, I found a liminal process embodying beauty, power and surrender. Birthing involves crossing from un-being into being; it mirrors death. The transformation is violent, physical, cultural, medical – yet somehow normal. We’ve all been part of it. When I chose to become a mother, I had seen so many women give birth that I knew I could do it too. I’d told the stories I needed to know.

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  • Moments after giving birth at home, Jen Carnig holds her son Wiley Lavoie as her husband Dan Lavoie, daughter Olive Lavoie and friend Lisa Johnson look on in Brooklyn, NY.

  • Jen Carnig gives birth to her son Wiley Lavoie at home with the help of midwife Cara Muhlhahn.

  • Moments after giving birth at home, Jen Carnig holds her son Wiley Lavoie.

  • Jen Carnig pumps breast milk in her office at the New York Civil Liberties Union in New York, NY.

  • Counselor Lyndsay Marsh and nurse Kayla Jones hold a 25-year-old patient's hands while Dr. Katharine Morrison performs a first-trimester abortion at Buffalo Womenservices in Buffalo, NY.

    The patient was confident in her decision and angry that her gynecologist had pressured her to continue the pregnancy, and that an emergency room employee revealed her pregnancy to her mother.

  • Pro-Choice Charlotte Clinic Defenders protest by the driveway of A Preferred Women's Health Center, an abortion clinic in Charlotte, NC. Anti-abortion protestors have pitched a tent and leaned signs against sawhorses marking the edge of the clinic's property.

  • Catholic anti-abortion protesters pray across the street from A Preferred Women's Health Center.

  • Catholic anti-abortion protesters pray across the street from A Preferred Women's Health Center.

  • A nurse holds a 16-year-old patient's hand while Dr. Katharine Morrison performs her first-trimester abortion at Buffalo Womenservices. Unlike most states, New York permits minors to receive abortions without parental consent.

  • Laura Mejia labors at the Birth Place, assisted by her husband, Brandon Smith and doula Stephanie Abdullah-Simmons, in Winter Garden, FL. The birth center offers evidence-based midwifery care regardless of insurance or immigration status.

  • Laura Mejia labors at the Birth Place, assisted by doula Stephanie Abdullah-Simmons.

  • Petrushka Bazin Larsen holds her second daughter, Zadie Larsen, at home in New York, NY.

  • Petrushka Bazin Larsen holds Ila, her five-month-old daughter, while working from home for The Laundromat Project, a non-profit offering art workshops in laundromats located in low-income neighborhoods.

  • Petrushka Bazin Larsen dresses her 10-day-old baby Zadie Larsen at home in Harlem. Bazin Larsen's friends from graduate school Tammy Kim and Nyeema Morgan-Cloud came to meet the baby, along with Morgan-Cloud's 11-month-old daughter Zelda Cloud.

  • A 25-year-old patient watches TV in a waiting room before receiving a first-trimester abortion at Buffalo Womenservices.

    "If I do have kids," she says, "I want to be more progressed in life. I love my life right now and I don't want to change it."

  • Anti-abortion protestors JoAnn Thomasello and Joan Brandon picket outside of Buffalo WomenServices. The protestors are legally prohibited from stepping outside of the yellow lines on the sidewalk.

    Brandon says, "I consider myself a feminist but I never burned my bra. I always encouraged my daughters to do whatever they wanted to whether it was climbing a tree when they were little girls to making careers for themselves before they married because I wanted them to be at home with their children when they did marry.

    "Donald Trump is opposed to abortion especially late term abortion which he has talked about many times so we encourage people to vote for Donald Trump. [His comments about women] are so unimportant to me because it's immature boy talk. Anybody who doesn't think that men talk like that in the locker room is unrealistic. It's in the male psyche to brag about their sexual conquests."

  • Nurse Kayla Jones takes a patient's blood pressure after her abortion at Buffalo Womenservices. Almost half of U.S. pregnancies were accidental in 2011. Twenty-one percent of all pregnancies (not including miscarriages) ended in abortion.

  • Anti-abortion protestors affiliated with Love Life Charlotte stand across the street from A Preferred Women's Health Center.

  • A Pro-Choice Charlotte Clinic Escorts volunteer waits for a patient outside of A Preferred Women's Health Center. She will use the umbrella to shield the patient from seeing or being seen by the anti-abortion protestors.

  • An 18-year-old patient reclines after her first-trimester abortion at Buffalo Womenservices.