Anger and disbelief — mixed with several affirmations of free speech — rippled across the Yale campus Thursday in the wake of a report that a senior art student had created a senior project for which she repeatedly self-inseminated and, weeks later, deliberately miscarried.
Many students expressed outrage when told of the concept, saying it transgressed any reasonable moral boundary. Although the University has since released a statement disputing that the actions Aliza Shvarts ’08 describes actually took place, the general consensus among Yale students was that the Davenport College senior acted irresponsibly in using abortion as a form of art. Rather than encourage dialogue, many said, Shvarts simply incited shock and disgust.
But several students, including members of the Yale Women’s Center staff, defended Shvarts’ work as an appropriate exercise of her right to free expression.
The commentary extended far beyond campus, as national media picked up the story and bloggers weighed in, often passionately.
Choose Life at Yale President John Behan ’10 said the group considers Shvarts’ project reprehensible.
“We believe that Yale students, regardless of their views of abortion, will be deeply disturbed by this trivialization of the agony of women who face crisis pregnancies and endure miscarriages,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This episode offends every thinking person who grapples with the deeply polarizing moral issue of abortion.”
But, Behan said, the controversy may succeed in sparking dialogue about an important issue.
Nina Solah ’08 said Shvarts did not accomplish what she ostensibly set out to achieve with her unorthodox form of art.
“Even if she was trying to provoke debate, I don’t think she ended up doing it,” Solah said. “People are talking about her, not the greater issue of abortion.”
Some students said Shvarts’ actions were irresponsible, not only on principle but also because they mar Yale’s public reputation.
“You have a responsibility to represent your school,” Elle Ramel ’11 said. “What if you are a pre-frosh and this is your last impression before you decide what school to go to?”
On Monday, hundreds of prospective students will descend on Yale’s campus for the annual Bulldog Days to decide whether the University is the right place for them.
But some students said they did not consider Shvarts’ art offensive. Kate McDermott ’11 said the artist was simply exercising her right to expression.
“If you appreciate the idea that art is intrinsically related to politics, then it is perfectly acceptable,” McDermott said. “But it does set a standard for achieving shock value.”
Shvarts also found support from the Yale Women’s Center, which released a statement defending her freedom of expression.
“The Yale Women’s Center stands strongly behind the fact that a woman’s body is her own,” the statement read. “Whether it is a question of reproductive rights or of artistic expression, Aliza Shvarts’ body is an instrument over which she should be free to exercise full discretion.”
But that opinion seemed to be in the minority as far as student opinion was concerned. Some students questioned whether Shvarts’ stated goal — sparking social commentary — is legitimate. Christine Saffold ’11 speculated that Shvarts’ actual main goal in conducting the project was garnering attention and publicity. The idea that someone would get pregnant for the explicit purpose of aborting the fetus, she said, is simply disgusting.
On Thursday, the general public seemed to agree; by early evening, news outlets from The Washington Post to London’s Daily Telegraph had reported the story, and the blogosphere was ablaze in horrified debate over the supposed exhibition.
The project — at least the way Shvarts presented it in a Wednesday press release and in interviews with the News — was quickly condemned by national groups on both sides of the abortion debate.
“It’s clearly depraved. I think the poor woman has got some major mental problems,” the president of the National Right to Life Committee, Wanda Franz, told FOX News. “She’s a serial killer. This is just a horrible thought.”
The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America also condemned the exhibition in a written statement e-mailed to the News on Thursday.
“This ‘project’ is offensive and insensitive to the women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage,” said Ted Miller, a spokesman for the organization.
Back on campus, students were still struggling to understand Shvarts’ rationale.
Shasky Clarke ’11 said he thinks Shvarts’ artwork treats humans as inanimate objects.
“Why is abortion art?” he asked. “I feel like art is something to be enjoyed and to be cherished by society. The connection of abortion to art is very disturbing to me.”