Artist Puts Spotlight on Maternal Mortality and Obstetric Abuse in America

Michelle Hartney
Michelle Hartney

Michelle Hartney has been an artist and activist for maternal health and obstetrics since the birth of her daughter and son: Shine and Seamus. While she says both of her deliveries were empowering, they were also very troubling prompting Hartney to create awareness through art about the high maternal mortality rate in the United States as well as obstetric abuse that she says is all too common for women across the country.

“I was shocked to discover that the way American women give birth now is rooted in a past that is riddled with misogyny, racism, and abuse. As I was reading as much as I could about the history of obstetrics in America, I was filling up my sketchbook with ideas and was flooded with visuals and topics that I wanted to make work about.”

For Hartney’s second delivery with her son, her doctor did not deliver her daughter, but she was instead assisted by a resident who wasn’t going into the field of obstetrics. She ended up fighting with the resident and a nurse about wanting to deliver her baby on her side; an option previously agreed upon by she and her doctor. Instead, they forcefully told her to “lie on her back” to deliver. Since Hartney had a doula who advocated for her during childbirth she was able to deliver on her side in four pushes, but the experience was difficult for her to handle.

“I was very upset after the birth; that I was arguing with the resident and nurse over something that was ridiculous to argue about,” Hartney says. “They should have known that it was okay for a woman to birth on her side. I kept replaying the whole scene in my head over and over again, that whole night after I gave birth, and many nights after, and I was angry, even though everyone was telling me that it was ok because my baby was healthy and I was healthy.”

As a result, Hartney created BIRTH WORDS, an art installation that raises awareness about the obstetrics verbal abuse women routinely experience during the birthing process. For this project Hartney sewed quotes from women who experienced bullying from doctors during childbirth.

Hartney’s upcoming art performance and a third in a series, MOTHER’S RIGHT, tackles not only the high maternal mortality rate in America that is steadily on the rise, but also as aforementioned, obstetric abuse as well as postpartum PTSD.

Gowns sketch

“When I started researching more about our country’s high maternal and infant mortality rates, I was so shocked, and even more bothered that very few people knew about it,” Hartney continues. “My background is in fiber, so it was a natural material to turn to for this installation and performance piece.”

Hartney plans on sewing 1,200 hospital gowns for MOTHER’S RIGHT, one for every woman who died in the US during childbirth in 2013. She will perform this piece on September 7th at the Daley Center in Chicago at Improving Birth’s “Liberate Labor” rally.”

Maternal Mortality Final

Hartney started a Kickstarter campaign that will allow her to complete her MOTHER’S RIGHT art installation. With 11 days to go her goal has nearly been reached.

Click over to hear Hartney’s words and support her work.

“I hope to raise awareness about the United State’s high rates of maternal mortality, obstetric abuse, and postpartum PTSD,” Hartney notes. “I also feel it is important to say that my project is not coming from a place of judgement, so it is not about cesarean sections vs. vaginal births vs natural births vs home births. One of my goals is to shed the judging that so often happens against women in relation to how we birth our babies.”

Visit Michelle Hartney at

All photos provided by Michelle Hartney.

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