September 26, 2008

On the Banality of Abortion As Art

By Corbin, Ian Marcus

Yale senior Aliza Shvarts has gone too far-or maybe she hasn't. According to a press release that Shvarts sent to the Yale Daily News on Wednesday, April 16, over a recent nine-month period, the senior art major artificially inseminated herself "as often as possible" and then induced miscarriages by means of herbal abortifacient pills. At first blush, her actions bespeak a morbidly unsound mind, but what makes Shvarts' actions even more outrageous is that she is-by all appearances-a perfectly normal young woman. This was not, it seems, a cry for help. Rather, Shvarts says it was abortion for art's sake-indeed, it was art. Shvarts claims to have filmed herself bleeding into a cup each month and to have saved the products of that bleeding to display as part of her upcoming senior thesis presentation. April 17, the day after the Yale Daily News first publicized Shvarts' project, university officials responded to a storm of outrage both within and without the university by announcing that Shvarts had confessed to fabricating the whole affair. It was, they said, a piece of "creative fiction." The very next day, Shvarts published an op-ed in the same paper. She repudiated that claim and gave an explanation of her actions and of their value as artistic performance. She also claimed that her project went ahead with the full approval of her academic adviser.

Whether Shvarts' story is a hoax is a matter of the highest moral import; we can all hope that Shvarts did not do what she says she did. But her alleged actions are not the whole story. Indeed, fabricated or not, the Shvarts affair has ignited a row at Yale that demonstrates a disquieting impoverishment of moral reasoning among Yale students. Whether or not the alleged impregnations and abortions actually happened, it is shocking how unremarkable Ms. Shvarts' project is.

In her op-ed, Shvarts wrote that for her the "most poignant" aspect of her performance was "the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood." Because she took the unnamed abortifacient at the end of her cycle each month, "it remains ambiguous whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not." This ambiguity is the main thrust of the piece, serving to transfer "the locus of ontology to an act of readership." That is, Shvarts wishes to show that the viewer of a piece of art, or indeed of a biological process, determines the identity of that phenomenon by naming it one thing or another. For those who believe it, a miscarriage has occurred. For those who believe otherwise, mere menstruation has taken place. Shvarts hopes that, as one views her artwork, he will come to realize how arbitrary this process of naming is. In this realization, he will come to further realize that "normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form, [and] it is this mythology that creates the sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective, distinguishing what body parts are 'meant' to do from their physical capacity." Shvarts is well aware of how much weight "naturalness" and "normalcy" bear in contemporary ethical and political discourse, and she hopes her art will influence this discourse.

Ms. Shvarts is obviously an intelligent young woman, and she articulates her moral vision with vigor. And yet one is struck by how tired that vision is. Anyone who has been paying a modicum of attention to the warp and woof of postmodern thought will already have learned Ms. Shvarts' manifesto by heart. One can hardly imagine a moral project more at home in the contemporary academy than that of Shvarts. Thus it makes sense that those who breathe this same intellectual air would have great difficulty rationally repudiating what she did-or did not-do. Indeed, according to the Yale Daily News, staff members from the Yale Women's Center went on record defending Shvarts' work as "an appropriate exercise of her right to free expression." Such casual, blanket approbation of personal choice is so familiar as to seem a mantra, but it does not represent the mainstream response at Yale. The Yale Daily News story from which the above quote is taken is titled "Reaction to Shvarts: Outrage, Shock, Disgust." According to the paper, the vast majority of Yale students interviewed for the story expressed strong disapproval of Shvarts' purported actions.

Unsurprisingly, then, in the days following Shvarts' press release, the opinion pages of the Yale paper were flooded with angry condemnations of Aliza Shvarts. And yet, with the exception of a few conservative, pro-life standbys, Shvarts' critics seem unable to augment their outrage, shock, and disgust with a proportionately strong argument as to why Ms. Shvarts' "art" is so very outrageous. One columnist, Anthony LeCounte, did express vague aesthetic disgust with Shvarts' "art" but spent his column excoriating those who would censor Shvarts based on the immorality of her alleged actions. He closed his column by saying that indeed he found Shvart's actions "abhorrent, but that's just my aesthetics (not morality), which warrant no right to unfairly attack or attempt to silence Shvarts or any other similarly distasteful artist for offending my sensibilities."

It is worth noting that LeCounte imported a typically moral adjective-abhorrent-into the supposedly amoral arena of aesthetics. There is an imbalance here between the verdict-"abhorrent"-and the action-offense of "sensibilities." This is a bit mysterious, and yet, in a conversation about Shvarts' work, it is not surprising. Reasonable people may disagree about the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgments in general, but due to the unmistakably moral thrust of Shvarts' project, and the fact that it was carried out using means that are themselves morally dubious (to say the least), the attempt to keep the moral and the aesthetic separate in this case becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Elsewhere in his column, LeCounte offered a welcome analysis of the uproar, writing that "a lot of people are just spouting emotional sentiments and then demanding that everyone subscribe to the same sentiments and reach the same (irrational) conclusions." As a general rule, attempts to paint moral judgments as mere emotional reactions fail to impress, but in this case LaCounte is on to something. Another pro-choice commentator, Molly Clark-Barol, wrote in to call Shvarts' actions "disgusting" and "repellent on every level," and ended her letter with a message for Aliza Shvarts: "Shame on you." And yet Clark-Barol seems, to me at least, to be unable to formulate a crime proportionate to her opprobrium. The best she could muster was the charge that Shvarts' work will cause some people to frown on abortion, thereby undoing many years of progress in the area of reproductive rights. For all her disgust, Clark-Barol could not find any legitimately pro-choice way to condemn Shvarts for the alleged actions themselves. Whatever visceral disgust she might have felt as an individual, as a participant in a public discussion, Clark-Barol had to content herself with bemoaning the anticipated public reception of Shvarts' actions. The actions themselves do not come in for censure.

If Aliza Shvarts did what she says she did, I think her actions were morally repugnant. If she didn't, her "art" is still faddish and hackneyed, and it paints a picture of a sharp young mind woefully corrupted. But the distressing thing is that, in her moral and aesthetic commitments, Shvarts is a genuine product of America's elite culture. My classmates and teachers at Yale rightly recognize, on some level, the moral recklessness of the actions Shvarts describes, but the moral and aesthetic visions to which they are, for the most part, committed give them no rational grounds on which to condemn Shvarts' performance. She is, if you will, a reductio ad absurdum, carrying contemporary artistic and moral ideologies past the point of politeness but not past the point of internal consistency. The Yale community is, understandably, unable to make sense of its own anger. It is a cause for sadness that, while the best and brightest of my generation can express their "outrage, shock and disgust," they cannot think about why Shvarts was, and is, wrong.

[Ian Marcus Corbin is an M.A.R. candidate at Yale Divinity School. This essay is reprinted, with permission, from the First Things website (, April 23, 2008).]

Copyright Human Life Foundation, Incorporated Spring 2008

(c) 2008 Human Life Review. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.