For almost a week now, students on campus and commentators across the country have picked apart the supposed senior art project of Aliza Shvarts ’08 — whether it’s art, whether it’s immoral, whether the University erred in barring her display from going up as scheduled Tuesday. But some observers in the medical world have been asking a different question: Are repeated artificial inseminations followed by self-induced herbally stimulated miscarriages, as Shvarts claims she performed, even medically feasible?
Three medical experts interviewed by the News are skeptical.
“The most likely scenario,” said Dr. Edward Funai, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of obstetrics at Yale-New Haven Hospital, “is that all Shvarts was seeing every month was her own menstrual blood. Half of the Yale community sees art of similar quality when taking care of their monthly hygiene.”
Yale has also expressed doubt, although of a different kind, about Shvarts’ purported project since last week, when it issued a statement calling Shvarts’ project a piece of “creative fiction” — nothing more than part of an elaborate piece of “performance art” meant to highlight the ambiguity of the relationship between art and the human body.
University spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said Thursday that Shvarts had confirmed to Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and two other senior officials that she had neither impregnated herself nor performed any self-induced miscarriages as part of the project.
But in her public comments last week, Shvarts labeled the University’s assessment of her project “ultimately inaccurate.” She has not spoken to the press about the subject since she published a column in Friday’s News explaining in detail the chronology of her supposed project.
But Harvey Kliman, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Yale School of Medicine, remains unconvinced. What signaled to him that Shvarts was likely “never pregnant” is the absence of any scientific evidence that herbal abortifacients are capable of terminating a pregnancy.
“I doubt she could take anything herbal that would stop a pregnancy,” he said. “There’s nothing in nature that can do that.”
Shvarts told the News last week that she does not know whether she was ever pregnant over the course of her nine-month project since she never took a pregnancy test. Shvarts said she was unconcerned about any medical effects the forced miscarriages may have had on her body, and she did not feel the need to consult a doctor at any point during the nine months, she said.
Of the herbal abortifacients currently available over the counter, none contains ingredients potent enough to abort a embryo, Funai said. Some could promote the miscarriage of an embryo “in theory,” he said, but would have to be ingested in extremely large amounts to do so. At such high dosages, Funai said, these herbal drugs would produce dramatic side effects, including nausea, headaches, anemia and possibly even death.
Shvarts has not said whether she experienced any such symptoms resulting from the abortifacients she said she ingested. In an interview with the News last week, Shvarts played footage from tapes she claimed showed her inducing miscarriages. The tapes depicted an occasionally naked Shvarts in a shower stall bleeding into a cup, moaning, sometimes doubling over, in pain. She declined to comment on the type of abortifacient she allegedly ingested.
“There’s a reason that there’s still a problem of access to safe and effective methods of abortion,” said Hugh Taylor, associate chief for research in Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility at the medical school. “If it were that easy to perform a simply herbal home remedy, that wouldn’t be the case.”
But while the likelihood that Shvarts’ ingestion of abortifacient herbs induced miscarriages is slim, medical experts interviewed said, the method of self-insemination she alleges she used is medically sound — at least on a mechanical level.
Funai said Shvarts could have become pregnant with the home-based method Shvarts said she used to self-inseminate.
Given the right timing, in theory, all it would take for a woman of Shvarts’ age to get pregnant would be placing a small amount of semen just beyond the opening of the vagina, he explained.
But Taylor said that, if she did in fact conceive over the nine-month period, “the odds are it was not more than twice.”
Shvarts told the News last Thursday that she used a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself within 30 minutes of its collection. Her sperm donors were not compensated for their services, Shvarts said, but she required them to periodically take tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
Despite the precautions Shvarts said she took in testing her donors and ensuring the sperm was fresh, Taylor said her method was still risky. Some infectious diseases such as HIV can only be detected in semen after six months, which means that sperm samples must be quarantined for at least a six-month period before they can be deemed safe for use, he said.
The central ambiguity of her project, Shvarts wrote in her column last Friday, was the nature of the blood she experienced on the 28th day of her cycle.
“The part most meaningful in [the project’s] political agenda … is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood,” she wrote. “Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not.”
Funai agreed that is impossible to distinguish between menstrual blood and the blood that results from an abortion by observation alone, unless the abortion is performed more than two weeks after the expected menstruation date.
But Taylor said that blood from self-induced miscarriages is usually noticeably heavier and may contain more tissue than menstrual blood.
Over the clamor of outrage that sounded as Shvarts’ project set blogs and comment boards ablaze last week, some readers did express concern for Shvarts’ health.
“The sheer physical danger that she puts herself in by repeatedly inducing miscarriage, not to mention the possibility of STD infection (and yes I know that they got tested, but she was absolutely playing with fire) boggles the mind,” one commenter wrote in a comment on the News’ Web site last week. “You might as well repeatedly induce tumor growth and receive chemotherapy (the analogy carries over into all other ways that I find this insulting).”
Nonetheless, if Shvarts did indeed do what she alleged, she may not experience any short-term medical consequences, the experts said.
Funai said no medical literature on the effects of repeated self-induced miscarriages exists — “for obvious reasons” — but the process of miscarriage itself is natural and safe. Still, that Shvarts may have somehow tampered with her reproductive infrastructure is not completely out of the question, he said.
“For someone who may desire children in the future, it wasn’t the smartest thing to attempt,” Funai said. “It may not guarantee infertility, but it certainly can’t be good for you.”
—Divya Subrahmanyam contributed reporting.