The Gross-Out Politics of Abortion

Why the Planned Parenthood ‘sting’ video and the emotions it inspires, shouldn’t be dismissed by those of us who believe in the right to choose.

07.17.15 5:05 AM ET

The primary driver behind the views of and discussion about the Center for Medical Progress’s Planned Parenthood “sting” video is disgust, something akin to the morbid fascination that drives people to Jackass’s violent antics or clinical acne extractions.

Supporters of women’s right to reproductive health access (like myself) feel frustration and pique; reactions on our side have had an unfortunate defensive air that dodges or excuses the video’s gruesomeness as a product of professionalism. Anti-choice advocates’ reactions have been no less unseemly, but for a different reason: Their disgust is informed by, and magnified by, glee.

They sense victory is at hand, that they’ve caught the baby killers redhanded. Count the explanation points in the Tweets, take in the righteous headlines on conservative-leaning sites: “Let’s Face it, Planned Parenthood is Evil,” “Bad News, Abortion Enthusiasts,” “The real lessons of the shameful Planned Parenthood video.” As one of the instigators of the investigation put it: The video “should be the final nail in the coffin” of the organization. You might be disturbed by a doctor discussing body parts over salad, but I’m a little unnerved that the same conversation has prompted all this dancing in the end zone.

You can sense the excitement of the undercover actors when Dr. Deborah Nucatola’s frankness crosses the line into something revolting. “We’ve been very good at heart, lung, liver, because we know that,” Nucatola says while discussing the transfer of fetal tissue. “So I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” The activists knew they’d found an image and a soundbite guaranteed to generate shivers among those who don’t usually even think about the abortion debate.

And that’s the point: The video’s power depends on reaching people who don’t usually closely follow the abortion debate.

As I said, pro-choice commentators have pointed out that Nucatola should not be blamed for speaking with professional detachment to people she believed to be equally professional and detached.

If that seems like a weak excuse to you, you’re not wrong.

Her comments land with such force not just because she’s been desensitized to abortion’s visceral reality by constant exposure to it. Rather, her lack of sensitivity stands out because the vast majority of Americans have the luxury of not being exposed to abortion much at all.

Abortions reached a 30-year low last year, falling by 13 percent since 2011 and by half from the 1981 high. The rate today is just 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women between 15 and 44. And the abortions that are performed today are dramatically less invasive and medically risky than they have been even in the recent past. Thanks to improvements in pregnancy detection and the “abortion pill,” almost 90% of abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of gestation, long before there’s anything to be “crushed.” So not only has the likelihood of an average American knowing someone who’s had an abortion dropped, but chances are that if you do know someone who’s had an abortion, it wasn’t the kind of brutal procedure Nucatola described: It may not have even happened in a doctor’s office.

Today’s situation, then, is a deeply ironic mirror of the dark pre-Roe past: Abortion is relatively rare and it is mostly not talked about. On some level, that situation is exactly what allowed abortion-rights advocates to succeed.

Pro-choicers can’t really criticize the pro-life movement’s gross-out tactics; we should be intimately familiar with them. Our side understood first that if you want Americans to turn against something, you need to make it too grotesque to ignore. For second-wave feminists, the coathanger was their Nucatola: a cue to instinctual recoil, a way to short-circuit discussion of policy and just get people to react. Back then, it forced a discussion that everyone wanted to be over. Indeed, even abortion access proponents have admitted that the conversation may have been resolved in too much haste. Ruth Bader Ginsberg has pointed out that Roe eschewed women’s rights for the sake of the right to privacy—the Supreme Court’s own way of avoiding icky body parts and bodily functions.

Today’s pro-life activists have figured out how to use revulsion more subtly than their ideological opposites. The Nucatola video is not only more efficacious than the crude signs protesters on both sides show outside clinics, it has an entirely different purpose. It’s not intended to just turn formerly pro-choice individuals into pro-lifers—it’s intended to dilute what “pro-choice” even means.

Portraying legal, medical abortion as a sordid business plays on Americans’ ignorance of what abortion really is—and what Planned Parenthood really does. Setting up Planned Parenthood and Nucatola as craven ogres allows good and reasonable people to think there is a “pro-choice” middle ground between the coathanger past and fetal-tissue-crushing present. They can believe they are “pro-choice,” just not supportive of something so ghastly. They can be pro-choice and still believe themselves insulated against the truly stomach-turning stuff that either side throws at them.

In fact, more Americans than ever identify as “pro-choice”—but then tell pollsters they are in favor of parental consent laws (favored by 60 percent of “pro-choice” respondents), 24-hour waiting periods (another 60 percent), “informed consent” requirements (86 percent), and just over half (52 percent) of those in the “pro-choice” camp say that they would make abortion legal only in the first trimester. I haven’t seen surveys on it, but my own experience is that there are plenty of people who support onerous requirements for women’s health centers and consider themselves “pro-choice” as well.

One friend told me that he hadn’t thought about how those in areas without abortion providers would then get abortions if they needed them. He was just concerned that women be “safe” during the procedure. Pressed, he agreed that closing the clinics would be an unfair burden on many, but, he asked, “Won’t the state supply buses to hospitals or something?”

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Those familiar with reproductive health policy aren’t fooled by the seemingly reasonable restrictions that apparently still count as “pro-choice” positions for many. They understand that these restrictions (including those on late-term abortions) have already led to poor and rural women resorting to later- and later-term abortions—and to do-it-yourself abortions as well.

When abortion is still mostly legal and mostly safe, professionalized and medicalized, it is of course medical professionals like Nucatola who become inured to the unpleasantness of the abortions that occur later in pregnancy. When abortions are illegal or difficult to obtain, lay people—lay women, specifically, can become depressingly familiar with it, too. Indeed, if you are grossed out by a doctor discussing the abortions she performs herself, try reading up on doctors discussing the abortions they didn’t perform—the ones they had to attend to after an amateur attempted one.

We can turn this into a Fear Factor contest, exposing Americans to the worst images each side has to offer. Do we really want to rely on disgust to drive our debate? Perhaps there is another way. Let’s not talk about what might happen if this or that law is turned around. Let’s talk about what’s happening now.

Abortion-access advocates and critics can’t agree on why the national abortion rate has fallen; while it’s true that opponents have been chipping away at access, rates of abortion are dropping faster than the rate at which opponents have succeeded in closing clinics. What’s undeniable is that when abortions are uncommon and mostly done quietly and quickly and very early in a pregnancy, the side that wants to talk about abortions—abortions, not “reproductive rights” or “women’s health”—will get to control the public’s perception of what an abortion is.

So let’s try not to turn our face to the wall when Nucatola comes up, or content ourselves to talk only about pro-life activists and what their motivations are. Let’s not squirm. Let’s talk about abortion, what it is, what it entails, and what the stakes are for women if the anti-choice side is allowed to use disgust to define “pro-choice” out of existence.