Why Kermit Gosnell Matters

16th Apr 2013

An unscrupulous abortionist who “snipped” the spines of live babies with scissors. A 15-year-old anesthesiologist. “Fetuses and blood all over the place.”

These are just some of the harrowing details from a grand jury report into the macabre “practice” of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, who has been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder. Though the case against him commenced last month, and the details listed above have been known since he was arrested in 2011, it was not until last week that the trial became a major story thanks to a concerted effort on the part of conservative bloggers, journalists and politicians to force it onto the national agenda.

Conservatives maintain that the media, overwhelmingly in favor of unrestricted access to abortion, deliberately ignored the story for fear that informing Americans about the revolting acts that transpired inside Gosnell’s “house of horrors” would do damage to the pro-choice cause. Writing on the blog of Commentary magazine, former Bush White House official Peter Wehner maintains that Gosnell inflicted “the kind of brutality many people in the pro-life movement warned was at the end of the lethal logic behind the abortion rights movement.”

In a media culture where Rush Limbaugh’s calling a Georgetown law student a “slut” for her demand that the government pay for her contraception merits non-stop coverage, conservatives are right to lambaste the New York Times and network news for overlooking the Gosnell story. But the reasons for this evasion are more complicated than the right understands.

On the face of it, the tragedy of the Women’s Medical Society is evidence for legal abortion, not against it. Pro-life activists are wrong to paint Gosnell as the face of American abortion providers. His practice was cynically designed to prey upon poor women from ethnic minority backgrounds who could not afford abortions at cleaner, more professional facilities. Moreover, Gosnell regularly aborted fetuses that had gestated beyond 24 weeks — the legal cut-off in Pennsylvania. The women who came to his ramshackle clinic were desperate, economically disadvantaged and ill informed about their health care options.

But make abortion illegal — which is what the loudest of the critics attacking the media for ignoring this story want — and you will not do away with the Kermit Gosnells. You will multiply them. You will return America to the dark period when abortion was a procedure administered underground, and clinics like the Women’s Medical Society were the norm, not the exception.

There is no issue more divisive in American politics than abortion. That’s not because Americans are neatly divided into two, absolutist camps. Rather, the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion until viability removed it from the realm of democratic decision-making and federalized an issue that had been traditionally dealt with by states, thus raising the stakes and ensuring that the fight over it would consume national politics until the end of time. Moreover, the most vocal participants in this debate are found on its extremes: those who wish to outlaw abortion in all cases, and those who believe there is nothing morally questionable about the practice at all.

Most Americans, however, agree with former President Bill Clinton, who, in his 1996 speech before the Democratic National Convention, aptly summed up the national mood when he said that “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.”

Why, then, did the allegedly pro-choice, liberal media avoid reporting on this story for so long, if it could have illustrated how Gosnell is not the consequence of legal abortion, but efforts to legislate it out of existence? One reason may be the way in which pro-choice activists discuss this morally fraught topic — which they do not even recognize as morally fraught.

When Clinton said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” he implicitly acknowledged that there is a moral cost to abortion. Tacking on that last condition of “rare” was a concession that terminating a pregnancy wasn’t just any other medical procedure, like having an appendectomy. In so doing, Clinton was merely reiterating the court’s rationale in limiting the right to abortion, which was that the state has an interest in protecting potential life. This is why Roe only allowed a federal right to abortion until the point of fetal viability, allowing states to determine how liberal their abortion laws should be beyond that period.

But to many pro-choice advocates, Roe — by not granting women the right to an abortion up to and until the second that the fetus leaves the womb — did not go far enough.

Intellectually and morally honest supporters of abortion rights should at least acknowledge that there are competing interests at stake — that of the mother and her unborn child — just as they insist that abortion opponents acknowledge the same. At the very least, abortion is the termination of a potential life, if not a life itself. Where supporters of abortion rights differ from opponents is in their belief that the right of a woman to bodily autonomy takes precedence over that of a fetus’ right to develop.

But so myopic has the pro-choice movement become that it is not even willing to acknowledge the moral cost of abortion, even when the fetus has gestated to the point where it could live outside its mother’s body. Is there that much difference between “beheading” a 7-month-old fetus (hardly, at this point, the “clump of cells” as described by orthodox abortion activists) inside a womb and initiating such a procedure after it has emerged, as Gosnell did? And yet many pro-choice activists argue that late-term, medically unnecessary abortions should be legal.

Kermit Gosnell is not the logical end point of America’s legal abortion regime. But given the morally blind rhetoric of too many people in the pro-choice movement, it is hard to blame anti-abortion activists for thinking that he is.

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