By most accounts, Kermit Gosnell seemed stunned last week when a jury found him guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in what seemed to have been his routine killings of newborn babies at his abortion clinic in Philadelphia; he thought he was doing his job. Abortion is legal and is a much-touted right. The president recently lavished praise on Planned Parenthood, a lobbyist for which had testified to Florida legislators in March that an infant born alive in the course of an abortion might be left to die anyhow.
What Gosnell was doing was inches away from a legal procedure—the killing of viable babies in utero—which we’re told is not just a constitutional right but “medical care” essential to women. These perversions of terms suggest much that is wrong with the current state of affairs regarding abortion, which, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has noted, “requires an assault on language and logic that surpasses belief.” The evasions that surround the extremes of the abortion rights movement tend to corrupt all that comes near them, leading not only a doctor to a well-earned conviction for murder, but otherwise responsible governors to believe that endangering women by suspending clinic inspections is the best way to help them, and much of the press corps to act as if the slanting or suppressing of stories in the service of the abortion-rights movement is the highest news calling of all.
“Abortion Bias Seeps into News,” ran the headline in the Los Angeles Times on July 1, 1990, as it described in detail how the press had come to serve as a de facto arm of the abortion rights movement. Most papers supported abortion rights in their editorials; 9 in 10 journalists supported abortion, and some turned up in abortion rights marches; the American Newspaper Guild endorsed “freedom of choice.” These views naturally affected the choices of which stories to cover, the framing of stories, and the words used to describe both the issues and people involved in the news. NBC’s Lisa Myers told David Shaw, the L.A. Times author, “Some of the stories I have read or seen have almost seemed like cheerleading for the pro-choice side.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and 23 years after, the Gosnell trial remained a non-story for weeks in the mainstream media. The blackout lasted until April 11, when Democrat Kirsten Powers, shocked and stunned by the silence, used her column in USA Today (circulation 1.7 million) to launch a blood-and-guts salvo: “Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive.”
This caught the eyes of Jeffrey Goldberg and Conor Friedersdorf, writing in Bloomberg and the Atlantic, and Friedersdorf’s post, “Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Trial Should be a Front-Page Story,” included copious extracts from the grisly report of the grand jury. “Why Is the Press Ignoring the Kermit Gosnell Story?” Goldberg asked, and then answered: because “this story . . . upsets a particular narrative about the reality of certain types of abortion, and that reality isn’t something some pro-choice absolutists want to discuss.” He was soon backed up by Melinda Henneberger and other centrists who entered the fray: “I say we didn’t write more because the only abortion story most news outlets ever cover in the news pages is every single threat or perceived threat to abortion rights,” Henneberger wrote in her Washington Post blog, She the People. “In fact, that is so fixed a view of what constitutes coverage . . . that it’s genuinely hard, I think, for many journalists to see anything outside that paradigm as news.” And indeed, the first sizeable story on the Gosnell trial to run in the Washington Post was on page four of the paper, directly under the jump from page one of a much larger story—about the threat to abortion rights from clinic regulations proposed by Virginia state senators.
Once the story broke out, there was a fight to define it, which the left fought on curious ground. “The most interesting response so far has come from voices on the uncompromisingly prochoice left,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Namely, Gosnell illustrated the failure to provide cheap and easy abortions, and not “the inherent horror of the procedure itself.”