The Nation's Pulse

It’s Not About Abortion—Except It Is

The Gosnell Trial resurrects a decades-old debate even if nobody wants it to.

By 4.15.13

Send to Kindle

Warning: This piece contains graphic descriptions.

On April 24, 1982, a baby girl was born in Greenville, South Carolina. She arrived two months prior to her due date and weighed in at a mere 3 lbs., 4 oz. Her parents felt afraid and ill-prepared, but fought along with well-trained doctors for her survival. There are eerily similar stories -- with worse endings -- within the grand jury report regarding the abhorrent, illegal, and immoral practices of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is on trial for murder. A trial about which journalists have largely been silent despite some admitting they knew about it but failed to see it as “newsworthy.” The report includes this shuddering scene:

Among the relatively few cases that could be specifically documented, one was Baby Boy A. His 17-year-old mother was almost 30 weeks pregnant -- seven and a half months -- when labor was induced. An employee estimated his birth weight as approaching six pounds. He was breathing and moving when Gosnell severed his spine and put the body in a plastic shoebox for disposal. The doctor joked that this baby was so big he could "walk me to the bus stop."

There is an obvious comparison between Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s detestable treatment of babies and the Southern-born preemie, but according to journalists who are finally commenting on the story, that would be too passé —abortion is not the focal point here. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf writes, “Inducing live births and subsequently severing the heads of the babies is indeed a horrific story that merits significant attention. Strange as it seems to say it, however, that understates the case.” He goes on to comment that the administration of dangerous drugs, regulation of abortion clinics, and major oversights of the Pennsylvania Department of Health are equally important issues, if not more so, to examine.

As fascinating as it is to read explanations of why most journalists haven’t covered the Gosnell trial until now — or why a story about a man who performed up to 1,000 abortions a year isn’t actually about abortion — and as ethically appropriate as it might be for a journalist to now report on it in a factual and detached way, it doesn’t change the fact that journalists should have covered the story. And the reasons they didn’t may be directly related to the facts of the story from which some are fiercely attempting to remain detached.

In her explanation of why she didn’t cover the Gosnell trial in detail despite being aware of it, the Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle admits: “To start, it makes me ill. I haven't been able to bring myself to read the grand jury inquiry. I am someone who cringes when I hear a description of a sprained ankle.” Further, after stating she is pro-choice she observes: “What Gosnell did was not some inevitable result of legal abortion. But while legal abortion was not sufficient to create the horrors in Philadelphia, it was necessary. Gosnell was able to harm so many women and babies because he operated in the open.”

The attempt of journalists, and there are others in addition to McArdle, to both explain, then apologize for purposely looking the other way from the grand jury’s nauseating report and then try to posit the trial isn’t so much about legal abortion as about heinous late-term abortions, the utterly egregious treatment of women in a vulnerable state (at least one woman is reported to have died under Gosnell’s supervision), and conditions in a filthy clinic is like saying riding a rollercoaster makes you vomit but that’s not why you don’t climb aboard the stomach-churning machine.

The two seem obviously and inextricably intertwined. It might sound too simple and straightforward but if you are pro-choice, and you read about a man charged with snipping the spinal cord of a 6-pound baby -- a few ounces shy of the weight of my now-6-year-old at birth -- well nothing burns like a smack in the face from the blows of lurid truths, one after another.

McArdle continues: “Moreover, as Jeffrey Goldberg points out, this has disturbing implications for late-term abortions. It suggests that sometimes, those fetuses are delivered alive. Worse, it hints at what we might be doing inside the womb to ensure that the other ones aren't.” I admire McArdle’s transparency but will take it a step further. Decapitating the head of a baby who is screaming upon exiting his mother’s birth canal is, and always has been, the essence of abortion. It just doesn’t usually occur at such a “late” stage in development. Sure, a 15-week old fetus — also known as baby — cannot scream while being aborted but seven of the eight murder charges against Gosnell are for the deaths of babies he killed post-delivery. The grand jury report if anything is proof of life upon two small changes: growth and location.

I do believe, or at least I hope, Gosnell is an outlier, that he represents an extreme, careless, greedy exception of medical providers, rather than the rule. However, Gosnell’s been performing abortions since 1972 and has supported the movement since the 1960s. This is how callous, desensitized, and deranged people can become when they believe babies aren’t babies until — well, who knows — and as such can be disposed of. It isn’t too big of a philosophical leap to argue if society embraces the abortion of babies up to 24 weeks as legal, why isn’t aborting a baby at 35 weeks? Why not post-birth as the Romans did, if the baby was deformed or deemed unfit for society? If it sounds like I’m re-hashing Roe v. Wade again well, I’m sorry. I am. Blame Gosnell.

The baby born prematurely nearly 31 years ago in South Carolina is glad her parents chose to deliver her and doctors were intelligent and caring enough to keep her in the hospital for a month post-partum to save her life. She’s now saddened and sickened over the death of babies born even bigger than she was to parents probably as terrified. But now she can tell her kids why they need to be informed and passionate about issues like these and explain what Dr. Seuss meant when he wrote: "Don't give up! I believe in you all. A person's a person, no matter how small!

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.