When I was in second grade, I had a teacher who decided that we were mature and responsible enough to be allowed to chew gum in class. I brought a stick of Wrigley’s in my pocket every day for weeks. I felt more grown-up and freer than my friends who were in the other second-grade class and were not allowed to chew gum. My teacher trusted me, and I appreciated her trust.
Then, just as the other teachers began to see the light and think about relaxing their rules, Ryan had to go and stick his piece of gum in Sarah’s ponytail. It was an innocent enough act that had a lot more to do with flirtation than mean-spiritedness and absolutely nothing at all to do with the actual gum. Nevertheless, it was just what the other second-grade teachers needed to prove that they were right all along: Gum-chewing should be banned. Ryan proved that eight-year-olds are not always responsible, respectful or aware of consequences. And so they condemned the rest of us to a spring semester of dry mouths and bad breath.
My story is all that came to mind when I considered the Aliza Shvarts controversy. Art, or not art, hoax, or no hoax, Shvarts’ project is a huge tragedy for the pro-choice movement in this country. Although I’m sure that she did not mean for her “art” to fuel the anti-abortion movement, she gave its supporters just the example they needed. Her project, surely, will become the poster child for irresponsible and disrespectful abuse of the right to abortion and a counter-example to the notion that a woman knows what is best for her own body.
I am fervently pro-choice, morally-relative, non-religious, politically liberal — and I will defend free speech with my life — but Shvarts’ project makes me want to cringe. It is not that she should have been disallowed from following through with her plans. But she seriously underestimated potential repercussions. Those who defend the right to abortion defend a woman’s ability to choose — to reason, to make decisions — yet with that right comes the expectation that her decision will be thought-out and considered somberly. The right to choose — your presidential candidate, your menu item or whether or not you’ll have an abortion — is a power. In fact, it is the very power on which our country is founded. It is the keystone of democracy. We protect this power and guard it, yet we recognize that it is often abused, and so we monitor and limit the extent to which it can be applied. Anti-choicers paint mental propaganda portraits of irresponsible young women who are overly sexually active (without protection), impulsive and willing to have multiple abortions without “learning their lesson” or considering alternative routes. This image is largely untrue, but perception is everything in mainstream politics.
I think I understand Shvarts’ operating motivation: “I have control over my body, and the body is an instrument for art.” However, there are better and far more mature ways of expressing such a view. I feel that this particular mode has the aura of a teenage tantrum. It is attention-getting and, I believe, it ultimately works against what she is trying to express.
I can deal with the identification of some art as “shameful,” sacrilegious, disrespectful or crude. I am okay with artists making art that is meant to be provocative, edgy and in-your-face. But I am not OK with the fact that in invoking abortion with the media, Shvarts has set back the pro-choice movement.
It is hard to tell a 14-year-old rape victim that she has to carry that baby for nine months instead of going to ninth grade. It is hard to tell a young woman who practices birth control and struggles to support herself that abortion should be illegal. It is incredibly easy — from an anti-choice point of view — to tell a senior at Yale University, who has access to birth control and who artificially inseminates herself and induces potential miscarriages repeatedly, that abortion should be illegal.
It is “art,” she claims. Fine. Sure. I might even agree. But Shvarts cannot be so naive as to ignore the fact that millions of people do not agree and see this only as an abuse of choice. Just because she does not (as I do not) endow abortion with moral ideology, she must recognize that more than half of voters in America do. They will judge her piece. They will moralize it. And they will use it as impetus to ban abortion.
O’Hagan Blades is a sophomore in Pierson College.