Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/18/2008 4:38:32 PM ET 2008-04-18T20:38:32

If Yale University student Aliza Shvarts wanted attention for her senior art project, she gets an “A” for effort.

Everyone else, apparently, gets a “D,” for duped.

The Internet is still reeling from the 22-year-old’s claim Thursday that she captured a series of self-induced abortions on video as part of a final project before her graduation in May. Outrage exploded and abortion rights advocates and foes alike condemned the project described in the college paper, the Yale Daily News.

One blog referred to Shvarts as a baby-killing “fetus artist.”

The incident sparked a series of denials and counter-denials about the truth of Shvarts' assertion that she inseminated herself repeatedly over nine months, took herbal drugs to induce abortions and then recorded the bloody aftermath for a public exhibit set for next week.

It also raised a larger question of whether the entire project — and the publicity that ensued — was part of an self-perpetuating hoax in an era of instant media saturation.

“Our responsibility as journalists to do good reporting when we know we’re getting punked is No. 1,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics columnist for the Poynter Institute, a journalism education and advocacy organization.

On Friday, facts were hard to come by.

Yale officials Thursday denied the story in the school paper, saying that Shvarts told three senior administrators that she faked the abortions as an elaborate gesture of “performance art.”

“The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body,” said Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky.

Student reverses position
But then Shvarts (or somebody claiming to be Shvarts) denied the university's denial in an e-mail to msnbc.com, insisting that the acts were real.

“I did very much impregnate myself and then induce the miscarriages,” read the e-mail from her personal account that was sent late Thursday.

That was the only response from Shvarts, whose campus phone has been disconnected and who didn't return e-mails to her school account. When msnbc.com forwarded the e-mail to Yale officials, who forwarded it to Shvarts, Shvarts told them she didn't write the e-mail.

But then she echoed similar sentiments in the school paper, but slightly changed her story, saying she didn't know if she had actually been pregnant, but that she had inseminated herself and later induced bleeding.

University officials said Shvarts told them she would deny their version of events.

“Her denial is part of her performance,” Klasky said. “We are disappointed that she would deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.”

The project was approved by a faculty adviser in the Yale School of Art, Klasky said, adding that the proposal did not include details.

It’s still not clear what Shvarts actually did — or why.

The e-mail to msnbc.com from Shvarts' account stated the project was designed to illuminate a fundamental aspect of “Womynhood.”

“I take absolutely nothing more seriously than birth because creating life is the sole domain of Womyn,” the e-mail went on.  “But I feel that birth and death are inextricably linked and recognizing this link is key to understanding the greater purpose of my piece.”

Shvarts apparently recorded the forced miscarriages on video and planned to exhibit the images on a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a gallery in Yale’s Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall. She also planned to include hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting layered with blood from the purported miscarriages mixed with petroleum jelly.

Cultivating uncertainty
Ambiguity was the point, she told the student paper.

“No one can say with 100 percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” she said. “The nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties. “

The editor of the student paper, Andrew Mangino, said Friday he stands by his story, though he notes that it’s possible Shvarts was never pregnant.

“The News’ reporting indicates that Aliza’s project is not a hoax,” Mangino said. “Two News reporters demanded and received physical evidence as well as graphic (and, at times, bloody) photographs in order to confirm that the project indeed has a physical manifestation beyond the shock value of its public explanation.”

Mangino said he doesn’t believe the paper was duped, and he rejected the idea that the paper could have been cooperating in Shvarts’ performance.

“The News absolutely did not collude with Ms. Shvarts in any giant media hoax,” he said. “Any suggestion to that effect is ludicrous and flatly wrong.”

Issue raises ethical questions
Shvarts is far from the first artist to use shock to make a point, noted Michael Darling, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Seattle Art Museum. Wrestling with thorny issues should be applauded, he added.

"Obviously, she's trying to push a lot of buttons about women's rights and cloning and all those issues," he said. "But it's also a student, too, and they're prone to things that aren't fully formed.

A more mature artist may have had a clearer message in mind before embarking on such a project, unless widespread media attention was the primary goal, he said.

"It makes the rest of the world think the art world is crazy," Darling said.

Whether the student paper that started the story was a victim of a ruse or helped perpetuate one, the young journalists violated basic ethical principles, said Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an msnbc.com columnist.

“There are some topics that just cry out for verification,” Caplan said. “There’s a lot of punking going on by performance artists and journalists need to be wary and savvy — even student journalists.”

That can be difficult, even for veteran journalists, McBride added.

"We are no longer the gatekeepers of information," she said. "We have to act as if we're providing perspective where truth is elusive."

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