Monday, April 21, 2008

My take on the Yale abortion "art" debacle

Just my two cents here, but after pondering this more (as someone who is also making art on this topic), I think what the artist in the Yale art scandal was trying to articulate with her performance piece was the cultural reaction to abjection with relation to the fetus.

Here is a definition of "abjection" from wikipedia:

The term "Abjection" literally means "the state of being cast off." The concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. In contemporary critical theory, it is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as people of color, prostitutes, homosexuals, convicts, poor people and handicapped persons. This term originated in the works of Julia Kristeva. Often, the term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abjected things or beings inhabit.

Following Kristeva's formulation of abjection in Powers of Horror - An Essay on Abjection, abjection can be seen as letting go of something we would still like to keep. In the case of blood, semen, hair and excrement/urine, we recognize these as once being a part of ourselves, thus these forms of the abject are taken out of our system while bits of them remain in our selves. When one encounters blood, excrement, etc. outside of the body, one is forced to confront what was once a part of oneself, but no longer is. Dismemberment compels the same kind of heightened reaction when one confronts the horror of detachment. A dismembered finger or limb is identified as belonging to one's own body and is 'missed' while at the same time repulsive to the viewer for no longer being a part of the whole. Because humans frequently shed skin and blood etc. there is a higher tolerance to it and we are not as horrified as we would be in the case of dismemberment, yet most are not willing to engage with excrement or blood due to its detached nature. In a way, we exist in abjection: the process of creating our self (identity) is never-ending. The act of "selfing" ("identifying") ourselves is the only common feature of all people.

According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. We encounter other beings daily, and more often than not they are alive. To confront a corpse of one that we recognize as human, something that should be alive but isn't, is to confront the reality that we are capable of existing in the same state, our own mortality. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot constitutes the subject as a living being in the symbolic order.

This act is done in the light of the parts of ourselves that we exclude: un-namely – the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. This is done on the micro level of the speaking being, through her subjective dynamics, as well as on the macro level of society, through "language as a common and universal law." We use rituals, specifically those of defilement, in order to maintain clear boundaries between nature and society, the semiotic and the symbolic. This line of thought begins with Mary Douglas' important book, Purity and Danger, as well as in Kristeva's own Black Sun.

The concept of abject is often coupled (and sometimes confused with) the idea of the uncanny, the concept of something being "un-home-like", or foreign, yet familiar. The abject can be uncanny in the sense that we can recognize aspects in it, despite its being "foreign". An example, continuing on the one used above, is that of a corpse, namely the corpse of a loved one. We will recognize that person as being close to us, but the fact that the person is dead, and "no longer" the familiar loved one, is what creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, leading to abjection of the corpse.


IMO, the anti-choice forces have employed abjection vis a vis the proliferation dismembered fetus pictures, and very effectively, to dissuade people from supporting abortion rights. However, the contrast to this is the abjection that is the female corpse - as the result of self-induced or illegal abortion. It is this abjection that I am trying to use in The Coat Hanger Project to remind people why safe, legal abortion is a fundamental human right for women. And this is where I wish the Yale artist had tried to take her work, to complete her thought, to make a statement - instead of just causing an empty rucus with her "hoax."

- Angie Young, Director, The Coat Hanger Project

Yale Performance Art: Where Are the Grown-Ups?

By Carole Joffe, Created Apr 18 2008 - 8:58am

Yesterday the Yale Daily News published a story 1 about the senior project of an art major, Aliza Shvarts, which consists, as the article put it, of "a documentation of a nine month process during which she inseminated herself as often as possible while periodically taking abortifacient 2 drugs to induce miscarriages." In short, Ms. Shvarts claimed to use donated sperm to achieve repeated pregnancies, and used then an unspecified drug for repeated abortions. Predictably, this story has spread like wildfire both on the Internet as well as the mainstream press.

Later on Thursday, Yale University issued a statement 3 announcing that Shvarts' project did not involve actual pregnancy or induced miscarriage. But even before their statement, I was skeptical. Most puzzling to me was her claim to have used "abortifacient drugs that were legal and herbal." If she had really terminated her own pregnancies repeatedly, she could have been subject to legal prosecution -- as occurred recently to a number of poor, mainly immigrant women who have tried to terminate their unwanted pregnancies by themselves, in situations vastly more grave than Schvarts' "senior project."

Even though Schvarts did not actually become pregnant and self-abort, this is a disturbing and irresponsible project. Shvarts told the Yale Daily News that her project was not designed for "shock value" and it was not her intention to "scandalize anyone." She also told the paper that she "believes strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity."

It is very hard to take such statements seriously. If she truly believed that claiming to get herself pregnant "repeatedly," only to then terminate those pregnancies, would not shock and scandalize, then she clearly has not a clue about reproductive politics, and should not be sticking her nose, er, her uterus, into a highly charged issue she knows nothing about. Art should be a medium for politics, but the responsibility of the artist is to know something about the politics with which she is engaging.

What useful "conversation" has Shvarts provoked with this project -- other than the fact that not all ideas for performance art are good ones? Does anyone -- on either side of the abortion debate -- gain any new insight from her work? All that seems to be accomplished with this project is a highly visible trivialization of the issue of abortion and a phenomenal insensitivity to women who suffer repeat miscarriages.

As someone who has been a college professor for over thirty years, I know it is not uncommon for eager students to have fanciful ideas projects, and some of these, for various reasons, simply should not take place. It is the job of faculty mentors to give appropriate guidance and to point out that not everything that is "provocative" is necessarily worth doing. The Yale art department, and her advisor in particular, has failed Aliza Shvarts big-time. And in ways that clearly Ms. Shvarts does not understand, her "artistic" contribution to politics fails the rest of us.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Yale Art Student Claims She Used Blood Samples, Video of Self-Induced Abortions for Senior Project

Thursday, April 17, 2008
By Catherine Donaldson-Evans

A Yale student who claims she artificially inseminated herself "as often as possible" and then took drugs to induce miscarriages for her senior art project says she will showcase the stomach-turning display next week — complete with her own blood samples and videos from the terminated possible pregnancies.

The story of art major Aliza Shvarts' upcoming exhibit, which the Yale Daily News broke Thursday, has sparked widespread disgust and outrage.

"It’s clearly depraved. I think the poor woman has got some major mental problems," said National Right to Life Committee President Wanda Franz. "She’s a serial killer. This is just a horrible thought."

Critics on campus have said the display sounds like a shock-and-awe look at the highly sensitive issue of abortion and called it a sick stunt to get attention.

But Shvarts said the goal of the project is to encourage debate and discussion about the connection between art and the human body.

"I hope it inspires some sort of discourse," Shvarts, whose age was withheld, told Yale's newspaper. "Sure, some people will be upset with the message and will not agree with it, but it's not the intention of the piece to scandalize anyone."

Shvarts' campus phone has been disconnected, and she did not respond to e-mailed requests for an interview. Yale University and the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America also did not return calls seeking comment.

Shvarts told the school paper that her sperm donors, whom she declined to identify, were not paid for their participation but added that she did require them to be screened for STDs.

The drugs she took to induce contractions and miscarriages were legal and herbal in nature, according to Shvarts — who didn't specify what they were. The art major insisted she wasn't concerned about the effects of her research on her own body.

But ob-gyn Dr. Manuel Alvarez,'s health managing editor, said the young woman should have been worried because what she was doing was extremely unsafe.

"It’s quite dangerous," Alvarez said. "She was playing Russian roulette with her life, if she indeed did this to these unborn children for the sake of art. I don’t even have the words to express the disbelief that I have."

Alvarez said herbal remedies to trigger uterine contractions have long been used in countries where abortions are illegal — including certain raspberry teas and strong cinnamon teas — but they are far from consistently effective, and they tend to be risky.

"They interfere with pregnancy and are either toxic to the fetus or cause contractions," he explained. "The reason they are effective is that they create side effects, but none of them are 100 percent prescriptive to be abortive."

Shvarts wouldn't say how many times she was artificially inseminated and actually got pregnant for the project — which she described to the Yale paper as a huge cube hanging from the ceiling and swathed in plastic sheeting smeared with her blood from the reported miscarriages. The existence and number of pregnancies Shvarts may have had weren't independently confirmed.

Videos taken of what the college student says were self-induced abortions in her bathtub will be projected both on the cube's sides and on the gallery walls.

The exhibit will be on public display from April 22 to May 1 at Yale's Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall. Shvarts will be honored at a reception April 25.

Franz likened Shvarts' process of artificial insemination and induced miscarriages to the human experimentation that took place during the Holocaust. She said the Yale senior's work highlights a stark truth about American society's approach to abortion.

"She really has hit on a reality that what she has done is legal," Franz said. "Anything she chooses to do here can’t be stopped in terms of legality. And there are people fighting for her right to do this."

Alvarez believes such an endeavor in the name of art is offensive, harmful and insensitive, especially to women who face difficult choices about pregnancy or who aren't able to conceive.

"Anybody who trivializes a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy is really not contributing anything positive to these matters," he said. "I don’t see anything artistic about this. ... It’s completely unethical and immoral. What have we accomplished? Absolutely nothing."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Anti-Choice and the Woo Factor

By Amanda Marcotte, RH Reality Check
Posted on March 27, 2008, Printed on March 28, 2008
Article on RH Reality Check

If you've never really delved into it, I highly recommend that you take some time to discover the skeptical community. People who consider themselves bona fide skeptics are generally delightful people, if a little nerdy, and if you are not someone who gets highly attached to what skeptics like to call "woo" -- a catchall term for beliefs that have little to no grounding in reality, from conspiracy theories to belief in the paranormal. Skeptics are big fans of science (most of the contributers to one of my favorite podcasts, "The Skeptic's Guide To The Universe," are scientists of some sort), and a handful of honest magicians like James Randi and Penn and Teller also throw in, angry at less ethical magicians who present their tricks as something more than entertaining diversions. They have books, podcasts, websites, and even TV shows, like "Mythbusters" and "Bullsh*t."

Skeptics enjoy debunking people's delusions. They poke holes in the claims made by "alternative medicines" like homeopathy, acupuncture, or chiropractic therapy. They like to expose psychics as frauds. They show up ghost hunters, and question people who believe they were abducted by aliens. What they don't take on, and has always puzzled me, are the woo-based claims made by the anti-choice movement.

I can't think of a better example of organized woo than anti-choicers. UFO aficionados and conspiracy theorists have the numbers, but rarely do they exhibit the same kind political pull that the anti-choice community has. But other than their extraordinary political effectiveness, the anti-choice movement resembles any other group of woo believers. They organize around some really wild claims that filter out to the rest of society in a milder form that makes them seem more sane. For instance, UFO believers and homeopathy followers internally believe, respectively, that people live entire alternate lives on board alien ships and that almost any disease can be cured by drinking lots of water with microscopic traces of herbs in it. What filters out to the rest of us is just the erroneous belief that we have aliens that visit occasionally and taking herbs can be a substitute for real medicine. Similarly, anti-choicers internally believe that sex education and birth control is unilaterally an offense against god and nature, but the outside world that picks up on this mostly walks away with the message that abortion is bad.

Seriously, it should only take one look at the folks marching around the Hollywood premiere of "Horton Hears A Who" with red stickers that say "Life" over their faces, half willing themselves to believe that this movie is secretly all about them and their issues. It's a cult, and a strange one at that.

But what should really put the anti-choice community on the radar of the skeptical community is their hostility to science and their affection for anti-scientific claims. Anti-choicers make outlandish claims about the brain activity and feelings of embryos and fetuses, claims that could potentially affect a woman who obtained an abortion and believed lies about what happened later. They make deeply unscientific claims about how hormonal contraception causes abortion in order to give cover to a larger anti-contraception agenda. They make claims about how condoms don't work in an effort to dissuade people from using this potentially life-saving prevention device. And let's not get into the unscientific, woo-esque claims made about how Terri Schiavo could have a miraculous recovery.

Penn and Teller did in fact take on the anti-choice community's claims in an episode of "Bullsh*t," when they did an episode on abstinence-only education. So there's some indication on the horizon that the skeptical community senses all the woo coming from the anti-choice community and leaking into the regular political discourse, sometimes into alarming bills like the Human Life Amendment that attempts to enshrine the woo about "life" beginning at conception into law. But even though there's ample unscientific material to work with in the anti-choice literature, there's not a whole lot of correction coming from the usual skeptical sources. Why not?

Probably because politics ruins a good party. Skeptics come from all over the political spectrum, so digging into this angle might cause strife in the community. Many skeptics, while still being pro-science, might be amenable to the idea that women should be held as second class citizens by laws against reproductive justice, and starting internal battles on this issue might be seen as too much trouble. There's also the fear that getting political leads to ideological claims, which color the ability to practice skeptical inquiry properly. Penn and Teller often get called out on the carpet because their libertarian ideology often leads them to abandon their commitment to scientific evidence, most notably in their episode about second hand smoke, an episode that ignored evidence against their claims that it is basically harmless.

Unfortunately, the struggle between science-based thinking and woo-based thinking is getting increasingly politicized in this country. Even the most reluctantly political science supporters have had to face up to the political power of woo in the aftermath of increasingly vehement attempts from creationists trying to replace genuine science in the biology classroom with myths that sit better with their more magical understanding of the world. Maybe the scope of skepticism could widen to include skepticism about outrageous claims made by anti-choicers? God knows a lot of us fighting the woo-based anti-choice activists come from a background of social justice, not science, and we could use all the help we can get.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon.