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.”
Where the pro-choice moderates called for more regulations, and said life had been cheapened by right-to-choose slogans, the extremists said the problem occurred because there was too much regulation already and that life hadn’t been cheapened enough. Slate magazine’s Matthew Yglesias urged a “free market” in late-term abortions, in which brisk competition would improve conditions, lessen costs, and drive down Gosnell’s market share. Kate Michelman and Carol E. Tracy said Gosnell’s crimes resulted from “Medicaid’s refusal to cover abortions; the scarcity of providers in Pennsylvania; fear of violent protesters; and a right-wing culture that has stigmatized abortion,” making what “should be a completely safe and common medical procedure” much too expensive and rare.
Clearly, the ideal to the pro-choice left is a whole lot of clean, cozy clinics scattered over the countryside, with no restrictions whatever, terminations on order until the very last moment, all of them paid for by government and funded by taxpayers. But this sunny ideal tends to be a nonstarter, because most Americans detest late-term abortions, don’t want to pay for the ones they will tolerate, and see Gosnell as a Frankenstein’s monster enabled by the abortion-rights movement itself.
“There’s no mystery about where Gosnell could have gotten the idea that his youngest victims weren’t human,” Henneberger said, citing Planned Parenthood, and even Obama, who opposed protection of infants born alive during abortions as a state senator in Illinois. Gosnell was allowed to go on all those years because Pennsylvania’s pro-choice governors, Republican Tom Ridge and Democrat Ed Rendell, thought inspections might “restrict access” to clinics, the worst of all feminist sins. Other clinics and doctors knew Gosnell’s reputation, and referred patients to him. In 2009, a representative of the National Abortion Federation came to his office and was appalled by it, but filed no formal complaint. Another barrier to this dream of sweet, sunny, subsidized late-term abortion mills is the procedure they deal in, which by definition is ugly and violent. Sensitive doctors are not drawn to it. No killer of infants is likely to care much for women. Gosnell’s indifference to his clients’ well-being is one with the coolness with which he snipped babies’ spines.
We won’t know for awhile how much the Gosnell trial has changed things, but for now, the press has been outed as hopelessly biased; the left has been outed as borderline crazy. Fractures have emerged within the pro-choice coalition, shown by the speed with which Gosnell caused those in the center (supportive of the right to first-trimester abortions, but hedged with restrictions and guilt) to break free from the fringes (all trimesters, no restrictions, and no guilt at all). Planned Parenthood’s statement regarding the verdict—that Gosnell would no longer to able to prey upon women—had nothing to say of the scores of dead infants, which apparently mattered no more to them than they did to their killer. This makes Planned Parenthood an outlier on the great moral spectrum, with values most people abhor.
Finally, pro-choice extremists will need a new mantra; their “women’s health” gambit was exposed as a fraud. “Women’s health” has been sacrificed, over and over to the more important matter of uncontrolled access to late-term abortions and always to fetal demise. “We have to question why an evaluator from the National Abortion Federation, whose stated mission is to ensure safe, legal, and acceptable abortion care, and to promote health and justice for women, did not report [him] to authorities,” said the grand jury. “If what she observed . . . was so far outside the norm,” Melinda Henneberger wondered, “why didn’t it inspire a single phone call to the state?” Said Kirsten Powers, “I find the claim now that feminists were deeply upset about poor minority women being abused and killed along with their babies a little tough to believe.” So do a great many. Did Gosnell change the way we look at abortion? We’ll see.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.