If autonomy justifies art, feminists ought not object

There is a brand of feminism that criticizes prostitution and pornography when the women involved participate out of economic necessity. The theory is that economic pressure can undermine the necessary conditions of autonomy by coercing a woman into an activity that she would not otherwise choose. What is more, the market realities of prostitution and pornography mean that women are often required to enact a degrading role of female subjugation, thereby perpetuating antiquated patriarchal social norms.

But when a woman participates in prostitution or pornography from a position of economic security, maintains control over the form of the performance and the content of the image and refuses to be exploited by asserting her right to walk away should her conditions not be met, the only proper feminist response is, “You go, girl.” For in asserting autonomy over a sphere traditionally oppressive to women, she is expressing a freedom possible only because of the progress of feminism. And by converting that sphere into one of artistic expression — a performance in prostitution or an image in pornography — she affirms female creativity and broadens the horizon of possibilities available to women.

A similar feminist argument with respect to abortion allows pro-choicers to occasionally find common ground with pro-lifers. Many poor women have abortions as a result of economic necessity when they would not otherwise choose to do so. Once again, economic pressure can undermine the necessary conditions of autonomy by coercing a woman into an activity that she would not otherwise choose. In such cases, pro-choicers will join with pro-lifers to provide resources that empower her in her choice to carry her baby to term. Indeed, early feminists of the 19th century protested the terms and conditions of factory work because they forced women to choose between job and baby.

But when a woman has an abortion from a position of economic security, choosing the time and manner of the abortion, and converts the experience into a form of artistic expression, the only proper feminist response is, “You go, girl.” The artistic expression charts new territory for women, mocking the traditional opprobrium attached to abortion under the old order and declares the liberation of women from the fading remnants of oppressive patriarchal judgment. Indeed, whither a better expression of autonomy, than unnecessary abortion as art?

It is not unexpected if the preceding paragraph induces disgust. The story by which it was inspired (“For senior, abortion a medium for art, political discourse” 4/17) certainly has. But while some doubt the veracity of Shvarts’ claim to have induced multiple abortions with herbal abortifacients, the disgust prompted by the story, irrespective of the story’s accuracy, provides a key to investigating the abortion issue in general. For if abortion is justified by autonomy, the justification provided in the landmark Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, feminists ought not object to Shvarts’ “art” project.

The disgruntled feminist might charge that a key distinction has not been taken into account. There is a difference between defending a woman’s right to an abortion and defending particular abortions. But if this is the case, some standard must be adduced to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate abortions, since the right to an abortion is silly if no abortion can be justified. The normal standard adduced distinguishes between different stages of development, expressed in terms of trimesters or viability. On this view, it is legitimate to abort fetuses at an early stage of development. But the article reported that Shvarts induced multiple abortions in a period of nine months, meaning that all of the abortions would have occurred at an early stage in fetal development, thereby legitimate under the normal standard.

What, then, is the problem with Shvarts’ abortions? Perhaps abortion is legitimized by economic, but not aesthetic reasons? But then artistic expression loses its aura, having been subordinated to economic necessity. Perhaps the problem is merely their public display, which violates a certain decency desired in the public realm? But is it really any less disturbing if Shvarts created abortion-art for private consumption?

Or maybe, just maybe, Shvarts’ abortions disgust because there is something unsettling about abortion in any circumstance, and something grotesque in abortion-as-art. But if abortion-as-art is grotesque, does that call into question its justification by autonomy? And if justification by autonomy is problematic, how to maintain the right to an abortion in general?

Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • Anonymous

    I am especially surprised by the number of people who claim that pornography and prostitution are acceptable when freely chosen, yet express general outrage at Shvarts' project. How do they not stand or fall together? If anything, Shvarts' project appeals to a higher principle - that of 'art' - than do pornography or prostitution, which people presumably engage in for money.

  • MC07

    You go, Peter Johnston!

  • Old Blue '73

    You are confusing the concepts of legally permissible (i.e. the government cannot bar you from a particular act) with morally or aesthetically proper. One can (and this pro-choicer does) believe that Shvarts should have the freedom to do what she has done but still find it disgusting, insensitive and inappropriate as an academic or artistic project.

    I don't believe abortions should be done for recreation or art. But I believe women should have the freedom from governmental control to have them. If it means Shvarts or others will have them for bad reasons, that's a risk I'm willing to tolerate in order to protect the right of women who need them for good reasons.

    When people are free they will do unwise, messy, disgusting things. It is still preferable to have freedom than to have a society where the government prevents any disgusting, unwise or messy things from happening or punishes the perpetrators when doing those things.

  • ES06

    Johnston, get a grip.

    You say that some feminists think pornography is bad because it is exploitative, and then *you* (not any feminists, at least that you mention) define it as non-exploitative--and thus laudable-- when performed by the economically privileged.

    Then you leap to the conclusion that abortion is laudable when performed by the economically privileged.

    Then you decide that all feminists--even the "disgruntled" ones--must applaud abortion for art.

    Take an Intro to Logic class or something, because yours needs a lot of work. And maybe actually read the thoughts of a feminist or two on these topics.

  • adc

    Johnston, these two examples don't work. You are conflating two things that aren't the same. It would be like me saying:
    1. I don't like working out in the morning, but I do at night;
    2. I don't like coffee in the morning, so therefore I MUST like coffee at night… Just because prostitution and abortion elicit the same response when in one circumstance, doesn't not mean they necessitate the same response in another.

  • Anonymous

    It's gotten to the point where I can describe these columns as "Peter Johnston columns", and people know exactly what it will be like. That is to say, poorly argued and vaguely pretentious.

  • saltyC

    You are right that it is hypocritical o be disgusted by the thought of deliberately inseminating oneself to have abortion, and at the same time be pro-choice. Her work has inspired me to become more consistent, and now I fully support the whole concept. Aliza is a genius. PS I'm completely serious. This has had a profound effect on many other women I know and we have all come around to saying you go girl.

  • James E.

    Is this column part of the performance art exhibition? Once the initial worldwide outrage has died down, is it part of the second phase of the plan to have the appalling "artistic" announcement followed up with insipid and half-baked commentary in defense, so that it can jump start a new wave of responses?

    Pardon me if I have breached decorum by calling BS on some type of elaborate hoax, but it is really the only way I could make sense of this article.

  • y10

    I think this column makes sense. Of course, Peter Johnston has managed to make what is basically a 100-word syllogism into an entire long-winded snooze-fest.

    Premise: Feminism centers on securing autonomy for women. Feminist choices must be made as free choices (ie: as choices made under an autonomous will [in the Kantian sense])

    Premise: The artist is truly autonomous in her decision to abort because she is not hampered by circumstance. Other women, who chose to abort for reasons of convenience, ability to provide, and health do not possess a truly autonomous will.

    Proposition: Therefore, feminists must defend this art in order to remain true to their principles. Otherwise, they're merely "feminists" of convenience rather than of principle.

  • vox

    But if the artist aborts because she must abort to obtain academic credit for a project that she has autonomously chosen for herself (contrary to the better judgement and/or taste of a public that would scarcely oppress her into peforming or provide her a reward for same)then she has freely chosen to be a dumbass and we may say 'You go, girl' as in you go [somewhere else] you silly-attention-whore-of-a-Deconstructionist-spouting-pseudo-artiste.

    P.S. No non-heteronormatives were harmed in the making of this post.

    P.P.S. The columnist really likes to hear himself talk. Too bad.

  • adc

    Y10, your deconstruction of the argument sounds good, but has the same fault as Johnston's. Let me try and follow your logic here, using a similar example:

    Premise: Liberty centers on securing autonomy for the individual. Individual choices must be made as free choices.

    Premise: The murderer is truly automonous in his decision to rape because he is not hampered by circumstance. Other people, who commit murder for reasons of self-defense, lacking mental stability (not sober or crazy), or nationalist goals (military service) do not possess an autonomous will.

    Proposition: Therefore, people who support the principle of liberty must defend the murderer in order to remain true to their principles.

    Ludicrous, no? That is because my arugment (and your's too) exists outside of a moral or social code. Feminists, i don't believe, are arguing for an unfettered autonomous will. Surely there is an understanding that not all acts showing autonomous will can be lauded, and they do recognize there are social mores. That is jonhston's problem -- because he sees prostitution and abortion as both equally abhorrent, he thinks they actually follow the same logical narratives. And just because they wish to knock down some of these mores, does not mean they wish to knock down all… That's called anarchism/nihilism, not feminism