A Yale University senior named Aliza Shvarts ignited the blogosphere with outrage yesterday, April 17, when the Yale student newspaper announced that Shvarts had artificially inseminated herself "as often as possible" over the past nine months and then periodically induced "miscarriages," all toward the goal of developing a "performance art" project in the School of Art at Yale. But there may be students on my campus who perform a similar type of "art" every week without much fuss.
It may all come down to the meaning of words.
A few hours after the Yale newspaper annoucement, the Yale University administration put out a press release claiming that the exhibition and its surrounding publicity were a "creative fiction," and that no inseminations or abortions had occurred. Shvarts shot back claiming that the University's statement was "inaccurate" and that the inseminations and miscarriages had actually occurred. Nevertheless, she added, that "she does not know whether she was ever pregnant [since she never saw a physician]. The nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties."
If Shvartz stands by her claim, we may never know the truth of what she actually did, or did not do, with her own body, but there's a serious problem with public understanding of what could have happened in the context of the words that Shvartz and others have used to describe her project.
The first problematic word is "pregnancy." Educated people commonly assume that a pregnancy begins with the fertilization of an egg by a sperm. But "pregnancy" describes the biological state of a woman, rather than an embryo, and a woman's body is unable to detect the difference between a fertilized egg and an unfertilized egg. Only upon implantation of an embryo into a woman's uterus (7 to 10 days after fertilization) does the woman herself become pregnant; it is at this point that pregnancy tests can detect hormonal changes for the first time.
The second set of problematic words are "abortion" and "miscarriage." Most of the time, fertilized eggs don't actually implant into the uterus. Instead, they emerge from a woman's body -- no differently than an unfertilized egg -- during menstrual flow.
But not all members of the public agree with the common medical definitions that I've provided. Some equate fertilization with pregnancy, and menstrual elimination of embryos with miscarriage. And it is with these interpretations that Shvartz is - possibly - playing games. She may have inseminated herself (during intercourse or with a syringe), and then followed this up the next day with a high dose birth control pill that would have prevented implantation. In fact, this "insemination followed by abortion" process probably occurs every day on every university campus in the country. (The second part of the scenario is called Plan B.).
Now I don't know what Shvartz actually did, but if it's the Plan B scenario that I just described, then the images being placed into people's minds are the real fiction rather than the project itself.