Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Abortion Art and Our Neighbor With Furry Boots

Several months ago, our neighbor told Greg that she would be graduating soon and was to have a senior project exhibited in April. When Greg said he'd like to see it, she said, I hope we can still be friends afterwards. Later, we both shrugged and figured her nervousness was an oddity, like the furry boots she wears even when it's 90 degrees outside.

The story broke several days ago. Aliza Shvarts repeatedly inseminated herself, herbally induced abortions in her home every month for nine months, collected the blood each time, and smeared this evidence with Vaseline across plastic sheeting that was wrapped around a cube to serve as a projection screen for videos she took of herself performing the act. Wow. As Greg put it, "Gross. We know her."

Anyone who knows me for more than a few minutes probably picks up on the fact that I am an opinionated person. It's just in me. I don't know why. Sometimes the opinions drive me nuts - they never go away - and sometimes they drive other people nuts - for the same reason. Opinions are neither right or wrong, they just are, and I equally enjoy giving and hearing them. So it's funny, when I think about this necessary aspect of my own personality, that I've never really offered up an opinion on this blog about something other than food. Well, this particular story might be quite a leap off topic, but I find it impossible to ignore - especially since Aliza Shvarts is our next door neighbor, a passing friend that we long ago nicknamed "Boots" who waves to our dogs and parks behind my Camry.

When the story first broke, I was horrified. Obsessed might be more like it. Despite the fact that I am quite firmly pro-choice, this (apparently) flagrant disregard for life - originating from a truly lovely woman who likes funky footwear - floored me. Perhaps even more shocking was the fact that Greg was cheering her on. This surprised me for two reasons: (1) although Greg himself could win a prize for being opinionated, it's usually not about philosophical life vs. non-life debates (more often it's about the correct way to put silverware in the dishwasher, but I digress) and (2) how on earth could he be cheering her on? I argued that it's not right to use "life" (no matter how small or cellular that life may be) as a political tool. He argued that anti-choicers have been using this tool to ruin female lives for the entire history of anti-choice. These continuing conversations took a rather interesting turn when it came out that Aliza's "pregnancies" probably didn't take place, that the blood was just menstrual fluid, that there are no true abortion herbs available online (if there were why bother with RU 486!), and that, indeed, Aliza had pulled off an incredible hoax on liberal and conservative America alike. Furthermore, although science requires, necessarily, that this is a hoax - Aliza denies that it was any kind of hoax. She insists that she regularly inseminated herself and induced bleeding at the end of the month.

Aliza didn't actually list her reasons explicitly, although many people have put these words in her mouth: free speech, art, political discourse, necessary controversy, useful discussion. Equally, the other side argued their reasons: disregard for life, fuel for the anti-choicers, attention grabbing stunt, danger to her own health, pointless, no-good-discussion-can-come-of-this. Several days of "do you think she did it?" discussion followed these events. The controversy which surrounded this topic made our conversations on it inexhaustible: the parents, the adviser, Yale, her... how, why, and what did this all mean?

I sat on my rigid, anti-what-she-did opinion for a while, and then I felt it ... strangely... melt away. Because what Aliza did or didn't do was exactly the point of her piece. Anti-choicers have argued, for long while, that conception begins at fertilization as opposed to implantation. This concept strikes many (myself included) as absurd - eggs are commonly fertilized and then lost in menstrual fluid. It's quite a normal process, and if indeed personhood begins at fertilization, I will have killed somewhere nearing 70 "people" in my adult, female, menstruating life. When we all thought that Aliza became pregnant and aborted those pregnancies, it was horrifying. When we realized that it was just normal menstruation that she chose to make into an attention grabbing piece of art, we rolled our eyes and turned our backs.

Yet what's the real difference? Why is it different for a sexually active woman on the pill to routinely engage in sex and have a fertilized, non-implanted egg go down the toilet every month, and for an art student to engage in the same act (minus the romance) and pretend that some herbal remedy (as opposed to the pill) was involved?

The difference is that it is a moral judgment, not a medical one, which determines the reaction. As a sexually active woman on the pill, I am no different than Aliza Shvarts. She could have yelled this fact on the top of her lungs and I never would have heard it - but 4 days of agonizing over this controversy, and it finally just hit home in a rather satisfying and permanent way. Aliza couldn't have said what she wanted to say. She needed to do what she did and allow other people to say it, personally, individually, publicly, softly and loudly to each other. She needed to do what she did to allow people to come to their own conclusions.

So now, we don't see Boots tromping around our street. In fact, when we did see her once, she revealed that Yale was planning to expel her, that she's received death threats, that her parents are terrified and flew in from California to stay with her, she's worried that her landlord is angry with her, and that she's upset about her future. All of these fears were revealed to Greg in only several shy sentences. Her father called her on the cell phone that very minute. She replied that she was okay, that the bus just dropped her off and she'd be inside right away.

All this over menstrual blood. Job well done, Aliza. Your work was brilliant.

Some links

The Story

Yale's Rebuttal

An excellent commentary


brett said...

But the combined hormone pill doesn't work by preventing implantation. It prevents ovulation. So there is no egg to be fertilized. RU 486 prevents implantation of a (possibly) fertilized egg. And it's not taken on a daily or monthly basis, only as an emergency contraceptive.

Nonetheless, her "piece" (I'm not sure exactly what she wanted to put on display besides videos) has stimulated a whole lot of discussion, which is far more than most people's art does.

I trust she anticipated the pro-life -- and considerable pro-choice -- backlash. Surely she must have anticipated threats on her life. These are fanatics who consider her a mass murderer. They blow shit up.

I doubt this is anything other than a hoax. I can't imagine 9 consecutive months of fertilization and RU 486 "abortion", nevermind this mysterious herbal abortion. Hell, it'd be miles easier to flip heads 9 consecutive times.

I congratulate her on what she's started. I don't think she deserves expulsion. It's a shame that it takes someone claiming such a vile feat in order to stimulate discussion.

Rachael said...

The first time a gynecologist explained the pill to me, she listed three mechanisms of action:

1) prevents ovulation
2) thickens cervical mucous to make it more difficult for sperm to get through
3) prevents implantation of fertilized eggs

I think, and my understanding here is obviously limited, that scientists have never agreed exactly what role each of these mechanisms play. Clearly, given studies in animals, #1 is at least as important (if not more) than the other mechanisms, and my statistic of 70 killed people is therefore exaggerated. Yet there is some evidence that #2 and #3 play a role, too. I get the impression that scientists just can't know for sure, and therefore this issue is used by pro-lifers as an anti-pill argument. Even for women not on the pill, my understanding is that fertilization without implantation occurs often enough.

Before this story broke, I had never thought about the ambiguity of implantation / fertilization / menstruation. What I like about the exhibit is that it takes this mundane issue to an extreme that reveals the absurdity of defining pregnancy at fertilization. In this shocking example (when we realize that it is a "hoax", and that even she inseminated herself, she was not likely to be pregnant, and even if she did induce bleeding or prevent implantation, that it actually doesn't meet most people's definition of an abortion), it becomes apparent that the criteria for life cannot possibly begin at fertilization.

So, if you ask me, I'd say she could have injected herself with sperm (though it was probably non-viable anyway, and even if she didn't, point taken) while remaining on oral contraception. I'll bet the oral contraception is the "abortifacient", since that choice of words is exactly what pro-lifers like to call oral contraception.

That's the part that makes me grin: it doesn't matter whether it's a hoax or not. She could have done it without (relatively) much risk. In the last 9 months, I've subjected my body to a somewhat similar process (at least I'm arguing that I have), and it would be anybody's guess how many times I - or any other woman on or off the pill - might have lost a potentially fertilized egg. I do not view her actions as vile, at this point. I believe that she challenged my conception of what it means to have an abortion.

I very much agree with you about expecting death threats. I don't feel sorry for her from that perspective, though I find it interesting that she is maintaining her position in the face of these consequences. I do think Yale is behaving rather poorly about the issue. We were actually walking around downtown tonight and ran into her in front of the art building - where her senior project would not be displayed. She's been told that if she talks to a reporter about any of this she will be expelled (or perhaps I'm making that up). I feel like I can't repeat the stories here, since I watched her kindly turn down two interviews in the span of 3 minutes, but let's say this much: she got approval from her adviser, and from her adviser's adviser for this senior project. Now, one week from finals, Yale will not give her a degree, and it would not be so difficult to imagine that they have the power to blackmail some people who could have the say to back her up. It could also be possible that Yale chose to take the low road of personal insults and anger, yelling and childish stamping of the feet. That would be a damn awful case if it were possible to publicly confirm that were the case, but then again, what was that I said about her not being allowed to go public...ah, yes, I don't expect anything else from Yale anymore - they have the ivy name to "uphold", no?

From Wikipedia:

A secondary mechanism of action of all progestagen-containing contraceptives is inhibition of sperm penetration through the cervix into the upper genital tract (uterus and fallopian tubes) by decreasing the amount of and increasing the viscosity of the cervical mucus.[60]

Other secondary mechanisms have been hypothesized. One example is endometrial effects that prevent implantation of an embryo in the uterus. Pro-life groups consider such a mechanism to be abortifacient, and the existence of postfertilization mechanisms is a controversial topic. Some scientists point out that the possibility of fertilization during COCP use is very small. From this, they conclude that endometrial changes are unlikely to play an important role, if any, in the observed effectiveness of COCPs.[60] Others make more complex arguments against the existence of these mechanisms.[61] And some scientists argue the existing data supports such mechanisms.[62] The controversy is currently unresolved.

Interesting, when I tried to google pill and implantation, all I got were pro-life websites. I feel so sure that the "abortifacient" must have been oral contraception, though I guess no one knows for sure what she did.

liz said...

For the record, RU-486 doesn't prevent implantation. It blocks the hormones that allow pregnancy to continue, thus causing an abortion. Emergency contraception is different; it's a higher dose of the same hormones in birth control, and therefore works the same way birth control does, by preventing ovulation (or possibly implantation). That's why it's so important to take it within 72 hours. Planned Parenthood is very careful to point out that there's no real evidence that preventing implantation is EC's primary function, precisely because pro-lifers would jump all over that point, in particular. As for herbal abortifactents, I read a bit about them ages ago (I can't remember what the book was, which is too bad, because it was interesting). They have been used historically, but they're not very effective. That's why the pill was so revolutionary when it did come along.

Rachael, I had serious conflicted feelings about this piece when it first came out. For me, the issue was really that it seemed like it would be fodder for any nutty pro-life arguments against Roe v. Wade that unfortunately scare the crap out of me for good reason these days ... I realized at the time that she couldn't have actually done what she was claiming to do, and that this was sort of part of the point. I'm still a bit unsure about the aftereffects of her work, especially given the swirl of misinformation that has been circulating around it -- but I hope she gets to speak openly someday, perhaps after some time has passed and people have calmed down a bit about her work.

Ultimately, I think Yale's reaction to the whole affair has been more troubling than anything else. Bottom line, she got permission to do the project, and shouldn't be punished after the fact for the "bad" press Yale's getting as a result. Aren't we supposed to have the freedom to explore intellectually challenging topics during our time here? Or do we have to think about the possible media reaction first?

Rachael said...

>>For me, the issue was really that it seemed like it would be fodder for any nutty pro-life arguments against Roe v. Wade that unfortunately scare the crap out of me for good reason these days

I do agree that this is a scary possibility and I'm not sure what I think about it. On the one hand, you don't want to play into a stereotype that your political opponent would like to cast you in (in this case, disregard for life). On the other hand, was the point to get pro-lifers to think differently or for pro-choicers to think more actively? I think I surprised myself by coming to a new conclusion about a topic that I thought I was so obviously settled on! (pro-choice = pro-choice, right?)... yet, as with most of these types of issues, there are many perspectives to consider it from.

The thought of Roe v Wade being overturned is terrifying. Then RU 486 = shot down. Then EC denied. And then, the future for the pill? I hope nobody can ever prove what Aliza did or didn't do, for the same reason I hope that nobody ever checks my menstrual blood for a fertilized egg.

liz said...

I have to say, I wish we didn't live in a political climate where we had to constantly consider how we came across to our political opponents. But considering today's political climate, I think we do. You have a point about getting pro-choicers to think more actively, but ultimately, I think your realization won't change much in this debate because of the (religion-fueled) arguments that are often involved, which don't seem to be affected by any sort of sensical, science-based arguments in the first place.

I've actually been thinking a lot about messages in art, as viewed within a particular historical or cultural context. There was a show I covered for the newspaper ~6-7 years ago by Paula Rego, which was considered controversial at the time because it dealt rather frankly with abortion. Her work featured women undergoing self-abortions in stark and rather brutal conditions, but the main thing you noticed about each of the pieces was the agony involved in both the act, the decision, and its aftermath. She was trying to remind us of what we were trying to get rid of when we gave women the right to choose, by showing us that desperation, more than anything else, was involved in the decision, and that it ended up being a matter of one death or two. And I think her message was effective and broadly respected because it illustrated the complexity of the issue so clearly, and painted a clear picture of the emotion involved in the decision, and the potential price (in human terms) taking away the right to choose could exact. It was, in essence, a reminder of the reasons behind the decision in the first place, which the artist felt we needed at the time and which the public was capable of understanding with some thought.

At this particular time, I think the emotional component of the message is key, because it is difficult to even touch upon this issue when the pro-life population is willing to quickly dismiss what they see as cold, unemotional arguments without serious thought. And I think this is what was missing in the media portrayal of Aliza's piece. Perhaps that would have come across in the final show, but I think that's why she's taking so much flak for her work. In this time, in this place, you can't leave that component out without having your audience blinded by their feelings about abortion, miscarriage, etc, and I wonder if this emotional response is really what she intended to evoke? I think it's blinded people to her point, ultimately. If her work was in writing, I think an advisor would ultimately question whether the message she intended people to take away was effectively delivered. I personally think the same question should be asked of art that is meant to prove a point as well.

Perhaps in 20 years we'll be able to look back and see her work as visionary (I do hope so, for the record, because it will mean we have actually moved beyond our current stalemate). I think now, given the current political climate, greater care is necessary to make sure that the questions one poses are clear. I understand that she intended her work to provoke a debate, but I wonder if the debate that's occurring now is actually the one she intended. I think very few people are actually getting the message she tries to clarify in her YDN op-ed, and it makes me wonder why she started all of this with a press release prior to the actual show in the first place?

brett said...

Here is her explanation of the "piece".

I find her writing to be unbelievably obtuse. I think I know what she's trying to express, but her language is so ambiguous that I must project my own assumptions onto her descriptions. Which is an irony considering her described intent of the "piece" is to question ambiguity.

She needs to read Orwell's take on imprecise language.

And I stand corrected on how the pill works. But given Aliza's intent of questioning ambiguity, I think the ambiguity of "knowing" how the pill is working as a contraceptive is in line with that intent.

Yet I don't find the questioning of ambiguity to be a terribly profound concept. Descarte did a damn fine job with that. Frankly, I was disappointed by her explanation of her intent. It seems too general. If her intent had been to specifically question the beginning of human life, I would be more impressed.