A+ for Abortion Art

Some people are under the misconception that performance art is a new thing, invented in the mid-twentieth century by people with no discernible talents for painting, acting, or music, but some hare-brained ideas, a willingness to be naked in public, and a talent for getting government grants. While it can't be categorically denied that this was a factor in the development of performance art, it's worth noting that another sort of performance art — the hoax — has been around since time immemorial. A good hoax should be funny, make people look like asses, and say something about the larger society beyond, "People are dupes." Which is why I tip my hat to Aliza Shvarts of Yale, whose art-hoax managed to set off alarms all over Wingnut Nation.

Shvarts claimed to have impregnated herself many times over the course of nine months, then self-aborted with herbs, and collected the uterine offal for her project. The project played up to every right wing stereotype imaginable about feminists, and even into the hands of white supremacist groups, who were eager to dismiss Shvarts with the blood libel, suggesting that she is a "murdering Jewess" who kills babies for fun. Some feminist bloggers (including me) immediately saw the problem with this story, which is that it's not possible. If abortion was a matter of just sucking down some oregano and waiting in the bathtub, it wouldn't be a political struggle, because it would be hidden from prying eyes, anti-choice protesters, and government authority. The coat hanger is the symbol of the abortion rights movement because self-abortion is a dirty, dangerous task that requires shoving sharp objects into your uterus. Even medication abortion, RU-486, is a long, painful process. If you kept going back to the doctor to get it, red flags would fly.

Within hours of the story hitting the internet, Yale issued a press release, indicating what people who approached this with a skeptical mind realized, which is that it was a hoax. Shvarts, like a good hoaxer, is not backing down, but she has explained her "abortions" in more detail. She injected herself with some (probably old, dead sperm), swallowed some herbs right before her period, and then video-taped her period and suggested that it might be a "miscarriage." But no, it's not likely she was ever pregnant, because if she was, she'd probably have to get a real abortion. In an artist's statement, she indicated that she knew that she probably hadn't been pregnant, but was exploring the grey areas between social and biological definitions of pregnancy.

And by exploring definitions of pregnancy, she pushed a hot button for anti-choicers. Anti-choicers, in an attempt to ban the birth control pill, are working hard to redefining pregnancy as beginning at fertilization, while medical science defines it as beginning at implantation. By combining one lie (about when pregnancy begins) with another (the evidence-free assertion that the pill and emergency contraception work by preventing implantation, when they actually work by preventing ovulation), they hope to create the groundwork for banning birth control. Since any random menstruation from a sexually active woman has the theoretical chance of having a fertilized egg in it, anti-choice rhetoric has collapsed the distinction between getting your period and having an abortion.

It's clear that the parameters of Shvarts' piece extend far beyond a bucket of menstrual blood that is visually indistinguishable from an early-term abortion to include the angry reactions. In other words, Shvarts knew she was playing anti-choicers. She writes,

"For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation — the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far) — is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading."

The fact that this art project wasn't physically possible didn't stop any anti-choicers from believing it, because it spoke to so many of the issues that set them off — none of which are a deep concern for the sanctity of human life:

  • Willful ignorance and hostility to science. A quick reference to the medical facts about abortion would have made anyone realize this was a hoax, but god forbid an anti-choice nut touch dirty secular science-based materials.
  • Hostility to women's access to public spaces and power. One hot button that made this an inevitable viral story is that Shvarts is a Yalie and an artist. he story confirmed a lot of anti-feminist suspicions about what happens when you untie women from the stove and teach them to read — which is that they go nuts. For all the supposed belief that abortion is bad because of "life," there was a lot of effort wasted in being angry about the fact that Shvarts is a woman who knows big words and apparently spends some time reading books.
  • A sense of ownership over women's bodies. The idea that a woman has a right to play with sperm and collect her own menstruation and stick objects in her vagina and put it all on tape, and you, the random anti-choice nut, can't do anything to stop her without being thrown in jail for trespassing has to be maddening. The fact that she's young and unmarried and no one can stop her from having men hand her vials of semen probably makes things even worse.
  • The belief that women are subhuman. Rod Dreher called Shvarts a "monster". Mighty Favog likened her to a devil, invoking a history of belief that women need to be second class citizens because Satan has more sway.

At the end of the day, Shvarts pulled an amazing stunt. Essentially, by menstruating into a cup and drawing attention to it, she got the anti-choice movement to play right into her hands. Given the opportunity to have a hate-in against an educated, sexually liberated woman, anti-choice nuts didn't stop to consider that what was riling them up so badly was physically unlikely to outright impossible. She managed to demonstrate the logic that drives things like blood libels and witch hunts, where a group believes the impossible because it confirms their irrational hatred for a person they've turned into The Other.

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  • http://www.noroomforcontraception.com invalid-0

    >> Anti-choicers, in an attempt to ban the birth control pill, are working hard to redefining pregnancy as beginning at fertilization, while medical science defines it as beginning at implantation.

    The truth is, it was the abortion rights and family planning movements that have been playing word games for the past few decades, and the pro-life movement is simply trying to correct the damage.

    Up until the mid sixties, the question of the beginning of pregnancy wasn’t a subject of serious debate. It was well accepted, based upon sound science, that, that conception occurred at fertilization (that is, the union of sperm and egg).

    In 1965 the ACOG issued a medical bulletin which “officially” changed the definition of conception from union of sperm and egg to implantation: “Conception is the implantation of a fertilized ovum [egg].” [1]

    Contrary to your claims, the new definition is NOT universally accepted as the medical start of pregnancy. Check out the definitions from some medical dictionaries (notably Mosby’s, Taber’s, and Stedman’s):

    Medical Medical Dictionaries and Encyclopedias: When does conception begin?


    Definitions of conception


    [1] American College of Gynecology Terminology Bulletin (September 1965)

  • http://www.noroomforcontraception.com invalid-0

    Here is a FAQ regarding some common myths and objections to conception and pregnancy beginning at fertilization:

    Pregnancy and Conception Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)- click to view

  • invalid-0

    Oh come on Ruben, an anti-contraception site as a source?

  • invalid-0

    Excellent blog, Amanda.
    This piece of art is indeed a great work. Inevitably on many a site one finds a pro-choicer asking an anti-choicer if they advocate tampon funerals or at least microscopic examination (because if a woman is sexually active, all tampons could contain a baby.) Inevitably the anti-choicer begins to sputter about how silly this is…thus contradicting their own position.

    Aliza’s art just concretizes the inherent ambiguity in determinations of personhood at beginning of life, and thus value of bodily mentrual fluid – (Aliza’s art) and the absurdity in trying to posit personhood and its inherent rights at conception (pro-choice interpretation.)

  • http://www.noroomforcontraception.com invalid-0

    So what if it is? – disprove the information it contains….

  • invalid-0

    I think the writer is a little hasty in her thinking.

    She presumes that the Pro-Life crowd (which she treats without respect by calling it “anti-choice”) gullibly accepted the story that the artist could induce abortion by herbal means. Because Herbal Abortion has been pointed out as a fact to me by anthropologists, I think that I and other pro-life people have looked at the coat-hanger as the method of last resort to people who do not have the inside knowledge of herbal medicines. The resurgence of natural medicine, eastern medicine, and the finding of old documents, etc, all increase that liklihood.

    I do not think the artist achieved her goal of bluring the conception line. I think instead that she merely gave fodder to the Pro-life side by her antics which suggest a lack of compassion for human life, exactly the problem pro-lifers have been claiming abortion of demand produces.

  • invalid-0

    No one can disprove the information this site contains, because it contains no information. Even if ACOG redefined conception, both the old and new definitions are arbitrary beginnings of personhood. All fertilization and implantation have going for them is that they are identifiable benchmarks, and even that is somewhat questionable. Furthermore, if fertilization were the only criterion of personhood, there could be no such thing as identical twins, which do not become separate until well after fertilization.

    ANY definition of the beginning of personhood is arbitrary, and all that is needed to refute the statement that personhood begins at fertilization is the well-worn but nonetheless true observation that statements asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Admit it, Ruben. The only “evidence” you have that personhood begins at fertilization is that this is what your church teaches. No, I don’t know which church you belong to, and I don’t care. “Personhood begins at fertilization” is a statement of religious opinion, and that’s all it is.

  • http://trailerparkfeminist.blogspot.com invalid-0

    Not just any anti-contraception site; his own anti-contraception site.

  • http://outwrong.wordpress.com invalid-0

    Anyone who criticizes Shvarts is simply an enemy of liberty and equality.

  • http://sigmundcarlandalfred.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

    “Anyone who criticizes Shvarts is simply an enemy of liberty and equality.”

    I have read few remarks are more breathtaking in their stupidity. You make the Dixie Chicks seem informed.

    Free expression is applicable to all. Expressing opinions you disagree with has nothing to do with liberty or equality.

    Truly, you are the poster child for every school voucher program.

    Public schools are failing the nation, as you so clearly prove.

  • invalid-0

    Up until the mid sixties, the question of the beginning of pregnancy wasn’t a subject of serious debate. It was well accepted, based upon sound science, that, that conception occurred at fertilization (that is, the union of sperm and egg).

    Even if that weren’t a flat lie (cf. 1776-era “quickening”, to take the most obvious example), the fact is that science was relatively primitive even as late as the mid sixties.

  • invalid-0

    Amanda, you do a beautiful job of both putting Aliza’s Shvarts’ work into a balanced perspective, and also of trying to help out the folk who don’t want to believe that it’s actually a work of fiction. In this regard, it was amusing to read in one response that: “… herbal abortion has been pointed out as a fact by anthropologists.” Herbs might work once in a while, but nine times in a row doesn’t make sense; if it did, there would never have been a morning-after-pill.

    I was sorry to see you attacked personally in a recent response. Such remarks only display the inability of the attacker to marshal reasoned thought. Maybe this person will find some nice soccer hooligans to join somewhere far away?

    Keep up the good work Amanda!

  • invalid-0

    So Aliza Shvarts managed to get the anti-reproductive-rights crowd to show their true colors? Is that really all that difficult? Did she tell us anything we didn’t already know?

    In the meantime, with November coming up fast, Conservatives are going to be making sure that this story (minus the it-was-a-hoax part) gets direct-mailed far and wide, riling up the troops and raking in the dough. Another $500K raised, another 1,000 voters in the right states, and that’s an election right there.

    Of course, Ms. Shvarts is free to make whatever art she wants. I just think she deserves less congratulation for exercising her right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.

  • invalid-0

    Oh, nonsense – so all liberals should just not say or do anything until after November for fear of giving the opposition fodder?

    Actually, what Ms. Shvarts art and a blog like Amanda’s have done is highlight the hypocrisy of even the most ardent “life begins at fertilization” supporter.

    But I’ll let ou in on a secret..shhhh! It’s actually a plan to help those LBATS see the error of their ways, have them bring the microscopes into the bathroom and then spend so much time analyzing their used tampons to see which ones need funerals that they forget to vote.

  • invalid-0

    Actually, having spoken to and listened to several self-proclaimed “pro-lifers”, Ms. Marcotte’s choice of the “anti-choice” label tends to be more accurate for several reasons:
    1. Many anti-choicers also advocate for abstinence only education in schools and limited access to birth control. Were it all about saving the babies, programs like comprehensive sexual education for teenagers would be a godsend to pro-lifers who want to prevent the slaughter of innocent zygotes. However, by denying women the ability to control their own fertility (resulting in more unwanted pregnancies), it becomes apparent that it’s all about punishing women for daring to enjoy sex.
    2. Anti-choicers propose that abortions should be illegal on the basis that it is murder. However, ask how many years women should be imprisoned for the crime of an abortion, and there is no coherent answer. In many cases, they support imprisonment for the doctor that provided the abortion, but no legal repercussion for the woman who searched for the doctor, paid the fee and requested the procedure. This response, if you assume anti-choicers believe abortion is murder, makes no more sense than punishing the hitman that shot a spouse but letting the other spouse who paid him go free. No, by making abortion illegal, it’s more about removing a woman’s access to options concerning her reproductive future while simultaneously punishing those dirty sluts with a baby. That’ll teach her. And if she chooses to seek out an illegal, dangerous abortion and ends up dying in an emergency room from a perforated and infected womb, it’s assumed that she got what she deserved.

  • invalid-0

    start treating pro-choice people with respect, and stop calling them babykillers, maybe your whiny crybaby “wah, Amanda is calling me an anti-choicer, which is true, but still mean” act will have a little more validity.

    You want respect? Start treating your enemies with respect. Oh, but wait, that might mean you would be one of those Jesus Hippie freaks from JPUSA(Jesus People USA) who really do follow the words of Christ and give up everything, including material possessions to care for the poor now. You probably just want everyone to have little babies, but vote to cut the social programs that would allow women to take care of said babies in a dignified human decent way. That would mean universal health care, quality foods, decent education, etc, etc.. No, I won’t have respect for you because you have none for humans living here, right now.
    And neither should Amanda.

  • invalid-0

    “Since any random menstruation from a sexually active woman has the theoretical chance of having a fertilized egg in it, anti-choice rhetoric has collapsed the distinction between getting your period and having an abortion.”

    Bzzt. This is true only if you ignore the fact that people have a problem with abortion and not menstruation.

    In one, you don’t know you’re pregnant. The egg fails to implant. It’s nobody’s fault.
    In the other, you know you’re pregnant. You go to a doctor to kill your unborn child.

    So, I guess that’s now…uncollapsed?
    Amanda, you have a history of deflecting arguments rather than taking them on. Good to see you’re consistent.

  • invalid-0

    Foetus, the word is foetus. A foetus is not a child, a child is what you are after you’ve been born.

    And by your argument, a woman who has sex just before her period as a method of contraception is killing an ‘unborn child’ because she knows it’s possible she’d end up pregnant and acted to make sure implantation did not happen. That is intent because, just like the woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant and gets an abortion, she takes an active measure to stop a pregnancy.

    Also, you’ve actually handed the victory over to Amanda. ‘the fact that people have a problem abortion and not mestruation’, basically, that is the only difference. As the above example shows.

  • invalid-0

    Actually, quite a few people do have problems with both menstruation and abortion. It’s frequently viewed as being dirty. For example, many people find the idea of having sex with a menstruating woman to be distasteful. It’s not like it’s any messier than sex with a non-menstruating woman (though harder on the sheets, admittedly).

  • invalid-0

    Haven’t you been paying attention? Life begins at fertilization, therefore if the [fertilized] egg fails to implant, there’s an unborn child somewhere in that thoughtless woman’s menstrual flow.

    Please do try to keep up.

  • invalid-0

    Aliza Shvarts is no artist or leader of social revolution. Squatting in a bathtub and displaying bodily fluids is probably as sophisticated as this woman can get. This hoax is neither funny, nor clever, as the majority of the sentient life on this planet has figured out that she was a talentless hack who desperately created controversy by grasping at one of the most controversial issues of our time. Her actions trivialize and pervert actual abortion, and is a big fat “fuck you!” to any woman that is unable to bear children.

  • invalid-0

    Esme, glad to see you around. DIY controversy styled anonymous, who exactly are you to define art? Her actions were not a fuck you to to women who are not able to bear children, they are a fuck you to a patriarchy that would try to define women’s bodies for them, which you are apparently also intent on doing. Also, how could someone ‘pervert’ abortion? Is it some holy ritual now?

    *Amanda, I like the snark about sucking down oregano!

  • invalid-0

    How is showing menstruation (or even abortion) a “fuck you” to women who can’t bear children? Are fertile women somehow under obligation to bear children on behalf of those who can’t?

  • invalid-0

    Wouldn’t anyone who criticizes Ms. Shvarts really be exercising their liberty to speak their mind?
    < br/>
    With freedom of speech, you have the liberty to criticize or disagree with anything you like.

  • invalid-0

    The “yell fire in a crowded theater” comment is a reference to a type of speech that is not protected under the first amendment: False warnings that may cause harm to others. One does not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater because it is a lie that will probably cause people to be injured and will definitely waste their time.
    < br/>
    While you may see the art as pointless, immature and unnecessary, it is not the equivalent to yelling fire in a crowded theater. It’s just art, not a false warning. It poses no threat.

  • http://www.myspace.com/7558749 invalid-0

    Here we go again about these social programs.

    Why do those women need social programs? They should support their own brood.

  • http://www.myspace.com/7558749 invalid-0

    If the woman ensures that implantation does not happen, then it is not killing the child as long as the method does not directly destroy whatever is inside. Merely allowing the cell mass to pass out unharmed is not murder by any definition.

  • janine

    Just as failing to take actions such as feeding or sheltering an infant is infanticide, and investigated and prosecuted as such, even though no action is taken against the infant.

  • scott-swenson

    Sanya is right, RH Reality Check does believe in liberal free speech, based on the fact that most anti-choice web sites and blogs heavily moderate commenting, if they allow it at all. Our policy and belief is that our community of readers, countering the comments of anti-choicers who just can't stand pluralism and democracy, provide a context for those who are legitimately in the middle on these issues, to make up their own minds. Do they want contraception to be accessible? Do they believe kids should have evidenced-based comprehensive sexuality education? Do they believe in preventing and treating STI's, HIV and AIDS, not stigmatizing people? Do they believe that each individual should be able to make decisions about their bodily integrity, how and whom to love, and when and where to bring how many children into this world? For people who answer those questions, after reading this site and the often outrageous, unscientific and unsupported misinformation that comes from the anti-choice crowd, we believe that people will be more informed, not just about the issues, but about who has high-jacked our democracy. When that conversation tips away from civility, we will delete comments. Joshua stepped over that line and unfortunately, in deleting his comment improperly, I deleted eight responses to his personal attacks on Amanda. Amanda, I can assure you, as many know, has no problem standing up for herself quite well, but while Joshua is spewing attacks here, she's on a book tour in New York promoting "It's a Jungle Out There", so I'm stepping in. Some of the comments remaining are borderline, but we're leaving them for now, encouraging even those who are anti-pluralism and anti-civility to try to rise above your base instincts and reach for a higher mind. To our loyal progressive readers, we'll be adding new tools soon to allow you to recommend and flag comments, continuing our efforts to put you more in the driver seat of RH Reality Check. Thanks for reading, commenting, keeping it civil, and keeping it real.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Re:Liberty WHO SAID “who criticizes Shvarts is simply an enemy of liberty and equality.”

    Fine, I will exercise my freedom of speech and engage in some liberty too — Jews like Shvarts are scum of the Earth!

  • invalid-0

    Why people think abortions are something new? but maybe that’s the question, and the cultural significance of clean, relatively safe (to the mother) abortions: there’s no punishment, and life can be significantly more bearable.

    Okay, obviously there’s guilt, and sadness, but i *think* that a large part of pro-life’s argument rests upon a cultural acceptance of punishment, in a very old testament sense.

    Eye for an eye, and that sort of thing.

    It’s always seemed odd to me that this new-testament religion, one of temperance and forgiveness, has such a tolerance for punishment.

    But then, I can’t quote scripture. Maybe Jesus isn’t the nice guy i think he is.

  • http://www.myspace.com/7558749 invalid-0

    You forgot one element.

    The person must be aware that the infant exists to be guilty .

    Before implantation, a mother would be unaware of the embryo’s existence if the embryo came to be by ordinary methods. Thus, any actions to prevent implantation would not be wrong.

  • janine

    We do know that sex leads to the creation of embryos that
    slough off with the womans period, approximately 50% of embryos do. The real creation and existence of these embryos is a known consequence of taking the action to have sex. These are either prior to implantation
    or with an incomplete implantation. This latter type is even more easily measurable, but even in this case no one bothers to care about them. There is only one reason why a woman would take an action to stop
    implantation – to purposely stop the implantation of real existing embryos she knows the action of engaging in sex can create –
    nothing else is going to implant so there is no other purpose for her action than to act against embryos.


    The state itself intervenes to protect infants when it even simply suspects an infant may exist and be at risk – even those infants whose existence wasn’t officially or previously reported to it.