All that has been accomplished by a Yale senior's art project on pregnancy and abortion is a highly visible trivialization of the issue of abortion and a phenomenal insensitivity to women who suffer repeat miscarriages.
Yesterday the Yale Daily News published a story about the senior project of an art major, Aliza Shvarts, which consists, as the article put it, of "a documentation of a nine month process during which she inseminated herself as often as possible while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages." In short, Ms. Shvarts claimed to use donated sperm to achieve repeated pregnancies, and used then an unspecified drug for repeated abortions. Predictably, this story has spread like wildfire both on the Internet as well as the mainstream press.
Later on Thursday, Yale University issued a statement announcing that Shvarts' project did not involve actual pregnancy or induced miscarriage. But even before their statement, I was skeptical. Most puzzling to me was her claim to have used "abortifacient drugs that were legal and herbal." If she had really terminated her own pregnancies repeatedly, she could have been subject to legal prosecution — as occurred recently to a number of poor, mainly immigrant women who have tried to terminate their unwanted pregnancies by themselves, in situations vastly more grave than Schvarts' "senior project."
Even though Schvarts did not actually become pregnant and self-abort, this is a disturbing and irresponsible project. Shvarts told the Yale Daily News that her project was not designed for "shock value" and it was not her intention to "scandalize anyone." She also told the paper that she "believes strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity."
It is very hard to take such statements seriously. If she truly believed that claiming to get herself pregnant "repeatedly," only to then terminate those pregnancies, would not shock and scandalize, then she clearly has not a clue about reproductive politics, and should not be sticking her nose, er, her uterus, into a highly charged issue she knows nothing about. Art should be a medium for politics, but the responsibility of the artist is to know something about the politics with which she is engaging.
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What useful "conversation" has Shvarts provoked with this project — other than the fact that not all ideas for performance art are good ones? Does anyone — on either side of the abortion debate — gain any new insight from her work? All that seems to be accomplished with this project is a highly visible trivialization of the issue of abortion and a phenomenal insensitivity to women who suffer repeat miscarriages.
As someone who has been a college professor for over thirty years, I know it is not uncommon for eager students to have fanciful ideas for projects, and some of these, for various reasons, simply should not take place. It is the job of faculty mentors to give appropriate guidance and to point out that not everything that is "provocative" is necessarily worth doing. The Yale art department, and her advisor in particular, has failed Aliza Shvarts big-time. And in ways that clearly Ms. Shvarts does not understand, her "artistic" contribution to politics fails the rest of us.
"There are systems in place that are attacking our communities," explained Tara Tee of Hands Up United. "A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again.
It’s been two years since since Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Caught on camera, the murder sparked weeks of demonstrations and protests, to which police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. It garnered national attention and made Black Lives Matter a household hashtag.
Tara Tee is a Black woman from St. Louis. At the time, she was working as a project manager at a corporate tech job, but she knew she couldn’t sit back and watch.
“We’d be out in the streets until four or five in the morning. Then I would go home and try to sleep for a couple of hours and then get up at eight in time for work,” Tee recalls.
She said she noticed children as young as 10 were joining in on the protests, yelling and asking for answers, and she realized that though they wanted to be involved, the community lacked the resources to educate and organize them. So she and a group of other engaged community members and activists founded Hands Up United, a grassroots organization dedicated to “fulfilling the political void that remains from the historical archives of the Black Power Movement.”
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Tee currently serves as the director of the organization, where she puts a lot of her efforts into its Tech Institute, which teaches coding to 16-to-30-year-olds in the Ferguson/Greater St. Louis area. Hands Up United also hosts Freedom Flicks, a free social justice film series; Books and Breakfasts; and the People’s Pantry. After the organization’s efforts to get people voting in local elections, St. Louis elected its first Black circuit attorney. Tee says her day-to-day is always different, sometimes meeting with community leaders, or running the organization’s programs and events, but that her main objective is always to help rebuild her community, which she says has been broken by systemic racism.
Rewire: How did you get involved with activism? And how did Hands Up United get started?
Tara Tee: I don’t necessarily consider myself an activist. I just consider myself a person who understands there are systems working against Black folks in America. I decided to do something about it, which I think most people should do in some way or another.
I went outside once I heard that the police in Ferguson had murdered someone and left his body out in the street for four-and-a-half hours, and all of the horrors that followed, including his mother not being able to approach the body, dogs being called into the neighborhood, dogs being allowed to urinate on his memorial. Just beyond the murder, everything that followed stripped someone’s humanity. It stripped humanity from Mike Brown, from his parents, and from the community.
As a Black woman in St. Louis, there’s no way that I could have not gone out to see, support, talk to, and love on people, and to let the state know that this is not OK. I just felt like it was something I had to do and there were many other people who felt the same way.
The birth of Hands Up United I would say was pretty organic, and it was a situation where it was like building the car while you’re driving it. We were out and doing things and making moves but we were just out because that’s what we felt like we needed to do. It took a while but we realized we needed to create programs to bring political education to the community.
We started thinking about, what does it look like to put something behind the nighttime action and being out in the street? What does it look like to create something that is sustainable, that is going to make a greater impact? Not that being in the street doesn’t make an impact. You and I wouldn’t be talking right now if we had not taken to the streets. You would not know Mike Brown’s name if we had not taken to the street. We have multi-level problems and we need to use every tool that we have to try to dismantle these things that aren’t working for us.
Rewire: What is Hands Up United’s mission?
TT: We’re basically just striving for the liberation of Black and brown people through education, art, advocacy, andagriculture. These are all things that are very important to us because they are all the things that are tied to these systems that are harming our communities.
Everything that we do is going to have a political education component to it, and it’s going to have an art component to it. We’re just trying to build community again. There are systems in place that are attacking our communities. A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again. So that, for example, the next time our neighborhoods are flooded with drugs the same things don’t occur. We ask kids to support Black businesses so that we can have a Black Wall Street, but they’re not teaching that history in school. So you’re asking someone to fathom something that they’ve never seen or heard about. So it’s important for us to create spaces and share knowledge that we have about things that are going on.
Rewire: It’s clear that Hands Up United deals mainly within the community. Are you affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives, and do you think the work that’s being done nationally is helping on the ground?
TT: We support them, obviously, because our missions are similar. We’ve just picked up the fight of our ancestors. These are some of the same things that we’ve been fighting for for many, many years at this point. If you review their platform, anybody that’s for community would be for these things. It’s very similar to the ten-point platform that the Black Panthers had. These are basic rights that people shouldn’t be having to draw attention to, or be asking for. We shouldn’t have to demand basic human rights.
We are aligned with a lot of the initiatives of the Movement for Black Lives. We work with and know a lot of those folks and organizations that do very good work. We’ve worked closely with some of them, and we are in community with them for sure. If any of them call and need anything we’re coming.
But I also don’t like the whole labeling of things because it creates false narratives and problems. As far as the media is concerned, any person who is Black and has ever attended a protest is Black Lives Matter, or if they’re not they’re the Movement for Black Lives. So my stance and the stance of my organization is that we are for and with Black people, so whoever is trying to push the ball forward for Black people, that’s who we’re with.
Rewire: As we approach the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, what, if anything, would you say has changed?
TT: I would say nationally there’s more awareness regarding situations that are plaguing us, and these situations run the gamut from police brutality, to excessive lead in water, to food deserts, to inferior education systems.
We get the information relatively quickly when something occurs. Before, people affected were like, I don’t know if I should share this. I don’t know if anyone cares. Now people don’t hesitate to share these things, and spread this information.
So awareness, both nationally and locally, is increased. But on the ground, there’s still very much racial profiling, there’s still predatory policing, there’s still ticketing and fines aggressively directed toward poor people. We’re still seeing problems with voter rights. And so when I look at what has honestly changed—not much.
Rewire: How do you think the media is doing covering what’s happened in Ferguson, and with other instances of police brutality against Black people?
TT: On a national level, I feel like it’s, for the most part, just propaganda. And then on the local level, for the most part, journalism here isn’t even journalism. There’s no investigative reporting. And so many of the stories start or end with “according to police,” or “the police said,” and it’s just like, well are you just sitting in the newsroom waiting for the police to fax over the story that you should print?
Ida B. Wells said the people committing the murders are the ones writing the reports. So it’s important to understand that the majority of the news that we are getting from the mainstream is generally not the real news.
We need nationwide media literacy. Why do [outlets] always put up a mugshot of the victim and not the cop or vigilante that shot them? It’s just not good reporting that is happening. There are some people who are doing really good work, but on the mass scale there’s just not good reporting happening.
Editor’s note: The above conversation is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Rewire and Tara Tee ahead of the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. Hear more from Tee via SoundCloud here.
HUSH relies almost exclusively on interviews with renowned anti-choice “experts” whose work has been discredited. They trot out many of the worn theories that have been rejected by medical and public health experts. The innovation of HUSH, however, is that it has reframed these discredited ideas within the construct of a conspiracy theory.
Another day, another secret recording made in an abortion clinic.
At least, that’s the very strong impression given by some of the scenes contained within the documentary film HUSH, which premiered late last year and is currently making the rounds of film festivals and anti-choice conferences in the United States and internationally, including the National Right to Life Convention that took place in Virginia last month.
The film is the creation of Mighty Motion Pictures and Canadian reporter Punam Kumar Gill, who says in the film that she is pro-choice, a “product of feminism.” It purports to tell the story of “one woman,” Gill, who “investigates the untold effects of abortion on women’s health.”
HUSH—which claims in the film’s credits to have received support from the Canadian government—attempts to cast itself as neither pro-choice nor “pro-life,” but simply “pro-information.” The producers insist throughout the film, in their publicity materials, and in private emails seen by Rewire that their film is objective and balanced.
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That’s how they pitched it to Dr. David Grimes, a highly respected OB-GYN and a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who agreed to do on-camera interviews for the film. Grimes now says the producers and reporter misled him about their intentions.
“There was no balance,” Grimes told Rewire. “It’s a hatchet job. It’s obvious.”
Indeed, HUSH relies almost exclusively on interviews with renowned anti-choice “experts” whose work has been discredited, many of whom are featured in Rewire‘s gallery of False Witnesses. They trot out many of the worn theories that have been rejected by medical and public health experts—namely, that abortion is linked to a host of grave physical and mental health threats, “like breast cancer, premature birth, and psychological damage.”
The innovation of HUSH, however, is that it has reframed these discredited ideas within the construct of a conspiracy theory.
When Anti-Choice “Science” Goes Conspiracy Theory
As a piece of propaganda, the use of the conspiracy theory has the advantage of removing the debate over abortion’s safety from the realm of logic. In HUSH‘s topsy-turvy world, the medical establishment becomes the scare-quoted “Medical Establishment,” and the more distinguished or authoritative a person or organization, the more suspect they become.
For reasons that remain murky, the film’s thesis is that the world’s leading reproductive and health organizations—including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization, along with all of their staff, contractors, and affiliated experts—have been hiding information about the risks of abortion.
This is most apparent when the reporter, Gill, tells the viewers that “if women have the right to abortion, they should also have the right to know” about the risks she believes she has identified.
Later, the film shows graphics highlighting the states that have various informed consent laws—some of which are literally called “A Woman’s Right to Know” acts—that force providers to give patients false information about the safety of abortion. Rather than concluding that the authority of the state has been used to mandate that doctors provide medically unsound “counseling” using the very junk science that Gill presents throughout the film, she hews to the back-to-front logic of all conspiracy theories. In her view, the existence of these laws shows that the risks are real, but that the faceless, nameless “they” still won’t let women in on the their deadly secrets.
In Gill’s world, the unwillingness of organizations to speak with her becomes evidence that they are hiding something.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tells Gill that it won’t fulfill her requests by giving her an interview because the science is settled; Gill sees this as a sign of conspiracy.
“This is where I started to feel equally suspicious of those denying any link,” Gill tells the viewer, her voice floating over inky footage of the U.S. Capitol at night. Lights from the Capitol dance on the velvety surface of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and Gill confides: “I felt like I was digging into something much deeper and darker.”
A comical scene ensues where Gill is astonished to find that turning up with a film crew on the grounds of the National Cancer Institute does not suddenly persuade it to grant her an interview with one of its experts.
“What was going on here?” says Gill in her voiceover. “It was like they really didn’t want any questions being asked.”
In fact, the National Cancer Institute had replied to Gill’s multiple requests with links to its website, which contains the conclusive studies that have long since dispelled the notion that any link exists between abortion and breast cancer. The film shows footage of those emails.
Furthermore, Grimes provided Rewire with copies of emails he had exchanged with the film’s producers during its production, in which he gave them citations to relevant studies and warned them that the work of the anti-choice “experts” they had approached had been thoroughly debunked.
After seeing the film, Grimes emailed the producers inquiring why they hadn’t simply asked him to connect them with additional experts.
“Had you truly wanted more pro-choice researchers to speak to these issues, I could have named scores of colleagues from the membership of the Society for Family Planning and Physicians for Reproductive Health who would have been happy to help,” Grimes wrote in a note he shared with Rewire. “You did not ask. That some organizations like the National Cancer Institute did not want to take part in your film in no way implies a reluctance on the part of the broader medical community to speak about abortion research.”
It seems that Gill—whose online biographies give no indication that she is a scientist—would not have been satisfied in hearing about existing research. She tells the viewers that, in her view, “more study is needed to determine the extent of the abortion-breast cancer link,” and concludes that “to entirely deny the connection is ludicrous.”
In an interview with Rewire, Grimes noted that doing such research would be viewed as unethical by reputable scientists.
“That issue is settled, and we should not waste limited resources that should be directed to urgent, unanswered questions, such as the cause of endometriosis and racial disparities in gynecologic cancers,” he said.
Grimes made his dissatisfaction clear to the producers. He wrote to them: “My inference after viewing the film is that you are suggesting a large international conspiracy of silence on the part of major medical and public health organizations, the motivation for which is not specified.”
The corollary to the suspicion cast over the most reputable research and representative bodies is that the film transforms the marginal status of the anti-choice “experts” into a boon.
Seen through HUSH‘s conspiracy theory lens, the fact that the work of people like Priscilla Coleman, David Reardon, and Angela Lanfranchi is rejected by the medical establishment becomes proof not of the unsoundness of their ideas, but rather that a conspiracy is afoot to silence them.
Instead of presenting this small but vociferous group of discredited activists as outliers—shunned because their theories have no scientific basis, or because they lack any credentials relevant to reproductive or mental health, or because they have repeatedly mischaracterized data—HUSH paints them as whistle-blowing renegades determined to set the truth free.
A tearful Lanfranchi recounts the story of patients who came to her with aggressive breast cancer in their 30s. Lanfranchi says she strove to understand “why this was happening,” and realized that each of these young women had had abortions, which she then concluded had caused their cancer. Lanfranchi said her hopes that the public would learn of this risk were dashed over time.
“Over the years I’ve realized that, no, it didn’t matter how many studies there were,” she tells viewers. “That information was not going to get out.”
Joel Brind says that he has worked with a colleague whom he says he later discovered was pro-choice, but that their views on abortion never came up. “This is about science,” he tells Gill. “This is about the effect on women and whether or not abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Period.”
Gill asks both Lanfranchi and Brind whether they are trying to “stop abortion,” or whether they “want abortion to go away.” Both answer that all they want is for women to be informed when they exercise their choice.
The film makes no mention of the fact that both have been anti-choice activists for decades; they have each testified in support of anti-choice laws in both legislative and judicial proceedings, and both have participated in the extreme right-wing, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families.
To the extent that HUSH acknowledges these activists’ bias, it is couched in a softer light that is linked, implicitly, to their religious views—a reality raised by Grimes in his on-camera interview, in which he notes, accurately, that the anti-choice “intellectuals” often lack the relevant medical or scientific qualifications to do the type of work they purport to do, but that they do tend to share religious convictions that lead them to oppose abortion and contraception.
That allows the producers to imply that the False Witnesses are perhaps victims of discrimination; to suggest that their work is being discounted because of the activists’ religious beliefs, and not because the work itself has been thoroughly debunked. Play the ball, not the man, appears to be the producers’ plea.
It’s a conspiracy theory twilight zone: where medical groups withhold information for reasons so cloudy that they cannot be articulated, but where people who have for years worn their beliefs on their sleeves cannot be evaluated with those political views in mind.
After asserting that she is, herself, pro-choice, Gill says she “finds validity” in the claims of the anti-choice advocates, and that she finds it “sickening” that the “media and health organizations have spent their energies closing the case and vilifying those who advocate in favor of the link, instead of investigating any and all reasons why breast cancer rates among young women have increased and women are dying.”
The producer, Joses Martin, did not answer Rewire’s questions about the experts he and his team had selected, other than to say, “We are very proud of the balanced approach that we’ve taken in this documentary that is neither anti-abortion nor pro-abortion.”
Another Instance of Secret Recordings Made in Abortion Clinics
What troubles Grimes most about the film is not so much that he was cast as the face of an international conspiracy by virtue of being the sole pro-choice physician to appear on camera, but that he may be associated with people who appear to have made secret recordings in at least one abortion clinic.
The footage and audio in question have been heavily edited, and it is difficult to discern what is real from what has been staged or spliced to give certain effects.
Early in the film, Gill is shown standing in the entry path to what the producers identify as a “Seattle abortion clinic.” As she makes her way inside, the footage swaps to guerilla-style, hidden camera shots, which capture wall artwork that appears in some Planned Parenthood clinics. Viewers see Gill’s face in the waiting room, as well as blurs of other people there. The film then swaps to audio recordings without any video footage. Gill can be heard posing as a patient, receiving counseling from a woman who is identified as a “health center manager.” This audio is used twice more during the film.
In Washington state, it is a crime to make audio or video recordings of people without their consent. Similar laws are in place in California, Florida, and Maryland, states where David Daleiden and his co-defendants from the Center for Medical Progress made their surreptitious videos of Planned Parenthood employees and members of the National Abortion Federation.
Grimes asked the producers whether they had obtained permission to make any of those recordings; Rewire asked the producers whether the recordings were in fact made in Seattle.
The producer, Joses Martin, replied to Grimes that he would “not be disclosing the name or location of the clinic or the name of the individual recorded to yourself or anyone else.”
“We have kept this information undisclosed and private both in the film and out of the film to not bring any undue burden on them. We’re certainly not implicating anyone involved of wrong doings, as was the goal in the Center For Medical Progress case,” Martin wrote in an email shared with Rewire.
In an email to Rewire, Martin did not answer our specific questions about the recordings, but asserted, “We did not break any laws in the gathering of our footage.”
Planned Parenthood had no comment on whether the crew had obtained consent to film inside its clinics, or whether Gill had misrepresented herself throughout her conversation with the counselor. Nor did the organization comment on the increasing use of secret recordings by anti-choice activists within its clinics. In a federal suit, Planned Parenthood has sued Daleiden for breaches of similar laws in California, Florida, and Maryland.
The branch of the Canadian government that the producers credited with supporting the film was less sanguine when informed about the apparent use of secret recordings made in American abortion clinics.
The film’s credits say that it was produced “with the assistance of the Government of Alberta, Alberta Media Fund,” but when Rewire contacted that Canadian province to learn why it had funded a piece of anti-choice propaganda, a spokesperson distanced the fund from the film.
“We have entered into conversations with the production company but we do not at this point have a formal agreement in place, and we were not aware that the production had been completed,” the spokesperson said. “We’re not able to comment on any funding because to date we have not funded the project. Thank you for bringing the use of our logo to our attention and we’ll be in touch with the producers to discuss.” The producers did not reply to Rewire’s question about their use of the logo.
Ironically, while the producer, Martin, did reply to emails from both Grimes and Rewire (albeit without answering specific questions), the reporter, Gill, remained silent. She never answered questions about what she knew about the backgrounds of the False Witnesses to whose work she lent such credence. She didn’t respond to our questions about whether she obtained permission to record video or audio within abortion clinics, or where those clinics were located. And she didn’t reply to our questions about the nature of her relationship with the extreme anti-choice group Live Action, who also received a credit at the end of the film.
To a reporter such as Gill, such silence would surely have been deeply suspicious.
Rewire Investigative Reporter, Amy Littlefield, contributed to this report.