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Yale student abortion art controversy

The Yale student abortion art controversy concerns reactions to a work of performance art by Aliza Shvarts, Untitled [Senior Thesis], 2008[1] which she conducted during 2008, the final year of her visual arts degree at Yale University. The piece was controversial, and considerable debate revolved around whether or not the project was a “hoax” or “creative fiction.”[2]


Creation and performanceEdit

Over the course of nine months, Shvarts used donated sperm to inseminate herself as often as possible between the ninth and fifteenth days of her menstrual cycle. On the twenty-eighth day of her cycle, she took herbal medications meant to induce menses or miscarriage (although she never knew if she was pregnant). Shvarts intended to exhibit video of herself experiencing vaginal bleeding on four sides of a clear plastic cube, which would be wrapped with transparent plastic lined with samples of the discharged fluid. [3]

On April 17, 2008, the Yale Daily News printed an article about the end-of-year student exhibition, in which Shvarts stated that the goal of the project was to spark conversation and debate on the relationship between art and the human body, saying: "I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity. I think that I'm creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be."[4] Gawker and Drudge Report quickly picked up the story, and mainstream media reported on Shvarts’s work in the days following. [5] Caught in an international media controversy, Yale College issued a press release[6] claiming that the work was a "creative fiction" including "visual representations, a press release, and other narrative materials."[7][6] Shvarts maintained the veracity of her performance in a guest article for the Yale Daily News, noting that the ambiguity surrounding the performance was an essential component of the work: “the piece exists only in its telling. This telling can take textual, visual, spatial, temporal, and performative forms—copies of copies of which there is no original … the artwork exists as verbal narrative, […] installation, […] as time-based performance, as an independent concept, as a myth, and as public discourse.” [8]

Robert Storr, dean of Yale's art school, threatened to ban Shvarts from displaying her project unless she confessed in writing that the project had been a fiction and that no human blood had been used.[9] Shvarts refused, and submitted an alternate project as her senior thesis. Yale ultimately admitted that the university “had been unable to determine with clarity whether Ms. Shvarts had in fact undertaken actions injurious to her health in carrying out her original project.” [10]


The piece was intensely controversial, with criticism from mass media outlets and political commentators across the political spectrum. [11]

Feminist political commentator Amanda Marcotte praised Shvarts because she "managed to demonstrate the logic that drives things like blood libels and witch-hunts, where a group believes the impossible because it confirms their irrational hatred for a person they've turned into the Other." [12] Brown University bioethicist Jacob M. Appel wrote in the Washington Post that "the history of great art is one of controversy and outrage" and that Shvarts was "an imaginative and worthy heir to" Manet and Marcel Duchamp.[13] Kriston Capps objected to censorship of the work in the Guardian, noting similarities between Shvarts’s work and “other examples of performance art that are recognized as groundbreaking moments in … art history,” such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden’s work. [14]

Conservative and anti-abortion Web sites, as well as pro-choice groups and media, were critical of the project, and condemned the university for allowing the piece. Ted Miller, a spokesperson for the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America called the project "offensive and insensitive to the women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage,"[15] and Wanda Franz, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, called the project "depraved."[15]

The work has since been written about in the context of feminist performance art. Art historian Jennifer Doyle notes that the “project explores the discursive field through which the female body is produced and read as a reproductive body.” [16] Art historian Carrie Lambert Beatty writes that the project’s “central point [is] that what we take as biological facts are constructed in language and ideology,” noting the different implications of calling Shvarts’s bleeding a “period,” a “miscarriage,” or an “abortion.” [17] The performance has also been written about as an early example of the ways in which issues of truth, reality, and fiction are called into question in contemporary mass media. [18] Doyle proposes that “the content of the performance has expanded to include nearly all reaction to it.” Art historian Nikki Cesare Schotzko writes that the “immaterial documentation that accumulated in virtual space” is an essential part of the work. [19]

Documentation and exhibitionEdit

Video documentation of the performance was first exhibited at Shvarts’s solo exhibition at Artspace, Off Scene, ten years after Shvarts’s controversial senior thesis was banned. The video documentation was slowed to span the duration of the exhibition. [20] Artworks incorporating statements by the artist and Yale, as well as the comment thread on the viral Yale Daily News article, were exhibited alongside the video documentation. [21]


  1. ^ Hagen, Lisa Hall (4 April 2012). "A performance ethics of the 'real' abortive body: The case of Aliza Shvarts and 'Untitled [Senior Thesis], 2008'". Performing Ethos: International Journal of Ethics in Theatre and Performance. 2 (1): 21–39. doi:10.1386/peet.2.1.21_1. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
  2. ^ Lambert-Beatty, Carrie (Summer 2009). "Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility" (PDF). October (129): 51–84.
  3. ^ Shvarts, Aliza (18 April 2008). "Shvarts Explains Her 'Repeated Self-Induced Miscarriages'". Yale News. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  4. ^ Powers, Martine (17 April 2008). "For Senior, Abortion a Medium for Art, Political Discourse". Yale News. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  5. ^ Schotzko, T. Nikki Cesare (2015). "Not yet finished, never yet begun: Aliza Shvarts, the girl from West Virginia, and the consequence of doubt". Learning how to fall : art and culture after September 11. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 99–128. ISBN 9781138796881. OCLC 890462461.
  6. ^ a b "Statement by Helaine S. Klasky — Yale University, Spokesperson" April 17, 2008
  7. ^ Kinzie, Susan (2008-04-18). "Yale Senior's 'Abortion Art' Whips Up Debate, Protests". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-04-30.
  8. ^ Shvarts, Aliza (2008-04-18). "Shvarts explains her 'repeated self-induced miscarriages'". Yale Daily News. Retrieved 2012-09-20.
  9. ^ "Yale Student Art Piece May be Banned". 21 April 2008 – via Blouin Art Info.
  10. ^ Kaplan, Thomas (30 April 2008). "Breaking stalemate, Shvarts submits new senior art project". Yale News. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  11. ^ Vogel, Wendy (Summer 2018). "Going Viral: Aliza Shvarts's Daring Performance Work". Mousse. 64: 250.
  12. ^ Marcotte, Amanda. "A+ for Abortion Art". RH Reality Check. Retrieved 2008-04-22.
  13. ^ Appel, Jacob M. "The Value of Controversial Art", Washington Post, May 8, 2008, Page A22
  14. ^ Capp, Kriston (23 April 2008). "Body Politics". Guardian. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  15. ^ a b Broussard-Wilson, Samantha. Reaction to Shvarts: Outrage, shock, disgust. Yale Daily News, April 18, 2008.
  16. ^ Doyle, Jennifer (2013). "Three Case Studies in Difficulty and the Problem of Affect". Hold it against me : difficulty and emotion in contemporary art. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 28–39. ISBN 9780822353027. OCLC 808216847.
  17. ^ Lambert-Beatty, Carrie (Summer 2009). "Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility" (PDF). October (129): 51–84.
  18. ^ Finch, Charlie (12 May 2008). "Mission Aborted". Artnet. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  19. ^ Schotzko, T. Nikki Cesare (2015). "Not yet finished, never yet begun: Aliza Shvarts, the girl from West Virginia, and the consequence of doubt". Learning how to fall: art and culture after September 11. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 99–128. ISBN 9781138796881. OCLC 890462461.
  20. ^ Vogel, Wendy (Summer 2018). "Going Viral: Aliza Shvarts's Daring Performance Work". Mousse. 64: 250.
  21. ^ Szymanek, Angelique (2018). "Aliza Shvarts: Material Fictions". Off-Scene. New Haven, CT: Artspace. pp. 3–7.

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