If religious conservatives have their way, reproductive healthcare will be dictated by the same psychology that drives middle school jokes about genitals, dead babies and poop—our instinctive squeamish reaction to things that are disgusting and shocking, especially if they relate to sex. Good thing public health advocates and medical providers have a higher set of priorities.
Each year in America, 650 women die from pregnancy, many leaving behind motherless children. Thousands more survive and thrive only because of “yucky” medical procedures like cesarean sections, hysterectomies, transfusions, and abortions. Given the latest deceptive smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, it appears that religious conservatives would rather some of those women died.
Blood, Guts, and the ‘Yuck Factor’
Most of us have little stomach for tasks, however important, that require cutting people open, removing body parts, or dealing with squishy tissue and bodily fluids. That’s why blood and guts are the stuff of horror movies. That is also why the Religious Right wants our national conversation about family planning to stay focused on “the yuck factor” of abortion surgeries rather than on the chosen lives and flourishing families empowered by well-timed, intentional childbearing.
Disgust evolved as a way to protect us against eating and touching things that might make us sick. Swamp water, decaying flesh, putrid food, feces . . . all of these carry pathogens that our ancestors needed to avoid long before people understood germs. Nature’s way of protecting our species was to make certain sights and smells disgusting. We have a similar instinctive revulsion for human forms that are damaged, disfigured, dying or dead. Our instinctive horror makes a mutilated body riveting.
An image or idea that triggers the yuck factor is “sticky” and viral, meaning it sticks in our brains and we are likely to describe or show it to others. The more disgusting something is, the more it rattles us out of the mindless routine of everyday living and creates a strong memory imprint. That is because paying attention to disgust had—and sometimes still has—survival value. As with every other sensation or emotion that grabs our attention, people have learned to take advantage of that.
Turning Instinct into Financial, Religious or Political Gain
Storytellers long ago figured out how to cash in on the yuck factor, turning disgust into gold at the bookseller or box office. From Homer’s Medusa, to Shakespeare’s witches and their brew, to Stoker’s Dracula, to modern zombie movies, the horror artist compels our attention by playing with gruesome details. Halloween merchants sell slime and goo for haunted houses or fake severed limbs and gashed faces because the instinctive disgust reaction is malleable and doesn’t differentiate between substances and situations that are truly dangerous and those that merely look so.
Religions capitalize on disgust by blurring the difference between cleanliness and godliness—in other words by giving disgust moral and spiritual significance. In the Bible, for example, a woman is spiritually unclean while she is menstruating or after delivering a baby, and people with handicaps including crushed testicles are banned from the holiest part of the temple. In Islam, dogs are spiritually, not just physically dirty. In the Hindu tradition, holy men wear white, and spotless clothes represent spiritual purity. In Western Christianity, white wedding dresses have similar significance.
When disgust gets triggered, people may build a cognitive rationale to explain to themselves or others why the disgusting something is bad for other reasons, layering a veneer of rationalizations on top of what is really a gut feeling.
The boundary between disgust and morality is particularly blurry for self-identified conservatives. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives. He found that liberals tend to base moral judgments on questions of harm and equity. Is it fair? Does it hurt anybody? Conservatives value fairness and non-harm too, but they also give moral weight to three other factors: loyalty, purity, and authority. What does my tribe want? Is it disgusting? What do authority figures say? In other words, conservatives are more likely to think something that triggers the yuck feeling is morally wrong, independent of other factors.
Practical and Moral Limitations of Yuck
Disgust works as a reasonably good shortcut to protect us from the dangers it evolved to avert, meaning pathogens and toxins. But even there, it has some real limitations. For example, in Ebola-stricken Africa, culturally-prescribed burial rituals trumped the instinctive aversion to touching dead bodies, which caused the virus to spread. On the other side of the equation, people with non-contagious physical deformities, like the Elephant Man, may face horrible cruelties and rejection.
When it comes to modern medical procedures and emerging technologies like GMO’s, or potable water from sewage, disgust correlates badly or not at all with real risks.
Likewise, moral disgust can arise from religious taboo violations, like eating cheese and meat from the same plate, that have little rational relation to humanity’s shared moral core or threats against wellbeing.
Homophobia and the Yuck Factor
For decades, people seeking queer equality found themselves up against the power of the yuck reaction. Any kind of sex that we ourselves don’t find titillating tends to arouse disgust; and so as long as the thought of queer people evoked images of anal sex between two men, the yuck factor created an almost insurmountable barrier to equality. But as a critical mass of queer people came out of the closet and advocates made the fight about families and love, other moral emotions like empathy and a sense of Golden-Rule fairness moved to front and center, and culture shifted.
Some years back I got schooled on disgusting sex by my middle school daughters. I had broached a conversation about their gay uncle and evangelical relatives who would soon be visiting us. I explained the yuck factor and said, “I might think about gay sex and say it’s not my thing, but they might think that its gross and so morally wrong.” One of the girls responded, “First off, Mom, the word isn’t ‘gay’ it’s ‘queer,’ and secondly, you know what kind of sex we think is really disgusting? Parent sex. That’s why we’re so glad you and Dad haven’t had any in 13 years.”
I chose not to enlighten them.
Today when most Americans think about queer people they think about loving couples, two moms or two dads raising kids, extended families, “sweet” members of the church choir, brave young soldiers, elderly partners making medical care decisions, and more—or they think about their own beloved relatives and friends who are queer. Although some members of the Religious Right may alternate between disgust and arousal (and disgust at their own arousal), conservative sects like the Southern Baptists are struggling and failing to keep disgust front and center even for their own members.
Reproductive Empowerment and the Yuck Factor
The culture shift toward equality for queer people, stands in contrast to the stalled progress around reproductive rights and chosen childbearing.
When it comes to reproductive empowerment for women, the Religious Right has been able to make disgust the dominant emotion by keeping the focus on sexual shaming and on abortion procedures, which are medical and messy. Those of us who see well-timed childbearing as fundamental to gender equality and flourishing families have gotten suckered into fighting on their terms.
Consequently, we are not creating the culture shift needed to make intentional childbearing the new normal, with all of the individual and family and community benefits that would bring. Half of U.S. pregnancies are unsought—either mistimed or unwanted—which makes American rates of teen pregnancy and abortion the highest in the developed world. Chosen pregnancy has been stalled around fifty percent for almost fifty years.
Recently, women have been exhorting each other to come out of hiding and talk about their reproductive decisions including abortions. Like queer people, women and allies understand that a culture of secrecy reinforces shame and stigma. We understand that if mothers and grandmothers stay silent, religious conservatives will control the conversation and hence the options available to our daughters, nieces and granddaughters. Several storytelling projects have sprung up to help women or couples defy taboos and break the silence, and brave celebrities, including men, are leading the way as they did prior to Roe vs. Wade. High-integrity electeds like Lucy Flores in New Mexico and Wendy Davis in Texas have risked their political careers and told their abortion stories so that other women may one day do the same.
I honor their courage and think their candor is a step forward. And yet, the drama around abortion has so captured center stage that even brave personal stories may inadvertently reinforce the Religious Right’s framing. We talk about the circumstances of an unsought pregnancy and the medical procedure the rather than the life made possible by access to contraception and care. In doing so, we keep the focus right where the power of yuck is the greatest.
Surgery – What’s the moral story?
Through much of this year, I have been consulting with people who want to communicate more effectively about abortion care, and I sometimes use my experience with knee surgery to illustrate how we can move beyond the yuck factor:
Two years ago, I was using a brush mower to clear an overgrown trail. The mower got stuck on a root and, unthinking, I walked around in front of it and yanked without disengaging the three foot blade. As the wheels hit the root and the front of the mower tipped up, my leg slipped under it.
I will be forever grateful to the surgeons who reassembled my kneecap and sewed up the horror movie gashes.
So, what's the story of my surgery? Well, certainly one could wax eloquent about the gruesome details of the accident or repair. But for me the real story is this: I can walk again, and even run. I can bicycle downtown. I can sit for long periods writing, and afterwards my knees don't hurt any more than most do at my age. This winter I even got back on cross country skis with my two daughters and husband in Yellowstone and skied to a frozen waterfall.
Smart, kind doctors and allied health professionals gave me an unspeakable gift. Their day-to-day work may get their hands dirty. It may involve goo and guts and it may even produce human remains that get donated for further medical research. But that is the climax of the story only for juvenile thrill seekers. For me as the patient, my children, my husband, and even my community, the real story is the precious gift of a second chance. It is a story about grace and compassion, love and laughter, beauty, and dreams fulfilled.
The same can be said about my abortion and many others.
A culture of secrecy reinforces shame and stigma.Far too often, the fight to protect abortion access focuses on the procedure itself or surrounding circumstances, rather than what comes after. As abortion counselor Charlotte Taft has put it, “I wish that we talked about ‘choices’ instead of ‘choice.’ Because when a woman has an abortion, she isn’t choosing the abortion itself, she is choosing an education, or military service, or her loyalty to the family she already has.” Or to the family she will have, when she’s ready.
Rising Above the Juvenile Fascination with Eew and Goo
In the coming months, with Hillary Clinton as the most viable female presidential candidate in American history, Democrats are queuing up a vigorous conversation about family friendly policies, policies that help children to flourish and that allow women to fully participate in our economy and our democracy. Their aspirations include paid maternity and family leave, more flexible work hours that accommodate parenting, affordable childcare, and better wages for working people at the bottom of the income spectrum (mostly women). But this policy agenda has a glaring omission: to fully participate in our economy and democracy, a woman must be able to manage her fertility.
I have said publicly that I am pro-abortion, not just pro-choice, but I also believe that when advocates think about reproductive empowerment, our minds too often jump to abortion. If we want a future in which children get created when couples feel ready, one in which empowered young women and men can invest in their dreams and stack the odds in favor of their kids, abortion care is just one small (and hopefully shrinking) part of the mix.
Abortion may be minor compared to many routine surgeries, but it is still an expensive, invasive medical procedure that can be emotionally and morally complex. Why mitigate harm if we can prevent it? For the price of one abortion, a woman can get a state-of-the-art IUD or implant that drops her annual pregnancy risk below 1 in 500 for up to 12 years. Access to top tier long acting contraceptives like these dramatically dropped the teen pregnancy and abortion rates in Colorado recently. But better birth control is also just one part of reproductive empowerment.
As I view it, people are trying to get from Point A to Point B in their lives; and abortion is like the guardrail that keeps them from going off the cliff when all else fails. Guardrails save lives. We definitely want them there when people need them. But we also want well-designed roads with lines down the middle, and cars with excellent brakes and steering, and well-trained drivers who have a clear idea of where they want to go and how to get there.
On the road of life, we all get by with a little help from our friends, and strangers, and sometimes even professionals. Most of us don’t need to be reminded how icky life can get when thing go wrong. What we do need is people who will be there regardless, who live by Planned Parenthood’s motto: Care. No matter what.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.