Disgust, Stigma and the Politics of Abortion

Every year, we in the abortion rights community marvel over the number of anti-abortion legislative efforts in the United States. And now, under the Trump administration, the unprecedented expansion of the Global Gag Rule will soon be implemented—affecting millions of women living in the global south. Just like many of the hundreds of restrictive abortion proposals introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. each year—such as proposals to ban later-term abortions or to force pregnant women to undergo ultrasounds—this policy is rooted in the desire to stigmatize and marginalize the abortion procedure, providers and the women who have abortions.

What is it about abortion that evokes such extreme views and policies? Why is it so stigmatized? I suggest we start taking seriously the emotional reactions abortion engenders—including disgust.

Think about this. Would you drink a glass of water that a cockroach has fallen into? Or eat chocolate in the shape of poop? If you scrunched up your nose and cringed, you are experiencing disgust—an emotion that, as a large and growing body of work shows, has surprising legal and political implications for many social issues, including the emotionally charged issue of abortion.

Using disgust as a tool for change is nothing new. Yet we, abortion-rights activists and leaders, have shied away from tackling such rhetoric. Why, when it is such a large part of the opposition movement?

In 2013, Florida State University law professor Courtney Cahill wrote an article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review that highlighted the role that the emotion disgust now plays in abortion law. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on certain types of later-term abortions in 2007, Cahill wrote, the court “signaled the introduction of an entirely new rationale for abortion regulation: disgust.”

Drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Cahill argued that disgust is experienced when social taboos are violated (e.g., incest). In the case of abortion specifically, disgust is evoked because abortion challenges social norms that insist women must be mothers to be “real” women. Abortion is also linked to non-procreative sex, thus threatening traditional ideas of female sexuality, gender roles, and women’s agency as well.

In addition to Cahill’s work on disgust and abortion, other thinkers, philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists have shown that evoking even a temporary sense of disgust can shift political beliefs toward being more conservative and can lead to harsher moral judgments.

Anti-abortion activists have long used graphic descriptions of the abortion procedure and images of dismembered fetuses to trigger emotional responses. The discredited videos depicting the alleged sale of fetal body parts at Planned Parenthood clinics are a recent example. The goal is to trigger an emotional response, namely disgust, and transform it to anti-abortion political action. And it’s a strategy that has worked quite well. In the case of the videos, it triggered a Congressional hearing and a raft of new proposals to defund Planned Parenthood clinics.

The recent rise of proposed fetal burial bills also is a blatant attempt by anti-abortion groups to have the fetus recognized as a separate individual by arousing feelings of distaste and disgust about the methods used to handle fetal remains.

And look at anti-choice activists’ efforts to produce legislation that would ban abortion at or around 20 weeks. It has, after all, already been done in 13 states. Their rationale has long been that if the public knew what happened in late-term abortions, they would be so repelled that they would be persuaded to eliminate later abortions.

Disgust appears to contribute to the stigmatization of abortion and both stigma and disgust are contagious. The horrifying—and admittedly, disgusting—2011 Grand Jury report on the Pennsylvania criminal trial of Kermit Gosnell resulted in the stigmatization of other abortion providers and women. Although unintended, the Grand Jury report’s detailed account of the conditions of Gosnell’s clinic and the media firestorm that ensued when workers and patients testified to his horrifying practices gave anti-choice groups an opening to connect Gosnell to all other abortion providers. The juxtaposition was intended to stigmatize all abortion providers as murderers and to make disgust the driving factor of this association. There is no doubt that Gosnell needed to be stopped, tried and convicted. But Gosnell is one man and not representative of all abortion providers. By seizing the dominant frame, anti-abortion groups successfully connected abortion stigma and disgust to political action.  

Given the likely impact of disgust and its role in legal, political and social spheres, it is surprising that the reproductive rights community has paid relatively little attention to the issue. We haven’t vigorously contested the framing of abortion as a disgusting medical procedure and of abortion providers and clinic workers as doing “dirty” work. For the most part, our community has avoided explicit conversations about the procedure, the products of conception or what happens to them after a procedure leaving the anti-abortion movement free to define and visualize pregnancy termination, fetuses and fetal remains in a way that fits their political agenda.

When the reproductive rights community does discuss abortion as a physical act, it is generally to remind us of how gruesome it was in pre-Roe v. Wade times—conjuring images of coat hangers with the intent to scare and repel us into considering the alternative to safe and legal abortion procedures. However, even the tragically iconic image published in Ms. in 1973 (and again after the 2016 presidential election) of a woman sprawled in a pool of blood after dying from complications from an illegally induced abortion did not serve to persuade the public. Indeed, it may have directed repulsion toward the woman.

Abortion rights advocates, activists, scholars and policymakers remain uncomfortable engaging with the physicality of an abortion. When emotional arguments are made, they are generally meant to evoke sympathy towards the woman and the difficult circumstances that led to her decision to end a pregnancy. When not making emotional appeals, we continue to give primacy to moral reasoning in decision-making. We prefer data and facts paired with rational legal arguments. The use of research findings is certainly not wrong, but in the case of abortion, data, facts and reasoned arguments are clearly not enough.

Abortion is an emotionally charged issue—not just for those who oppose it. I find it disgusting that white men continue to believe that they have the knowledge, power and political capital to legislate a simple and safe medical procedure for women.

It’s time to turn the tables.

The growing body of research on emotions and psychology is pointing to the importance of disgust as a primary emotion that can guide us in our messaging, our legal tactics and our work to reduce abortion stigma. It’s a chance to expand women’s access to safe, legal abortion.




Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international nonprofit working with partners around the world to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception.