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.

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