Abortionist Kermit Gosnell is on trial in Philadelphia for killing a female patient and using scissors to cut the spines of fetuses that were aborted alive. According to the grand jury report, he killed “hundreds” of living fetuses. It was his “standard business practice.” Mysteriously, Gosnell kept fetal feet in jars, perhaps as mementos.
Some pro-lifers are prone to regard all abortionists as monsters, bereft of a moral sense or sympathy for dead fetuses. That is nonsense.
The truth is that many limit their practice to relatively early abortions precisely because they find late term abortions troubling. Some limit their practice to the destruction of fetuses at 12 weeks’ gestation, others 15 weeks, still others 17. They do so because they share a moral sense with their pro-life opponents. It is a sense, rooted in a common human nature, which compels all of us to sympathize with beings that look like newborns.
Well, nearly all of us. There are abortionists, like Gosnell, who venture where few of their colleagues dare. They are untroubled by screaming fetuses born alive, or severing the spines of 30-week old fetuses, or dropping them into blazing furnaces. They don’t flinch. They don’t shed a tear. They just do their jobs.
At his trial, Gosnell listened to the horrors that took place in his office with bemused calm. As one journalist reported, “he just watched and calmly took notes with a vague hint of a smile on his face from time to time.” Like other sociopathic killers, Gosnell was terrifyingly composed and undisturbed.
Meanwhile, some of Gosnell’s staffers, who were too desperate for employment to abandon ship, suffered such horrors in silence. Sherry West, for example, stayed on the job even though she was “really freaked out” by the screaming remains of Gosnell’s abortions. Others, however, seemed to find a small measure of moral peace in the very banality of evil. When asked why she severed the neck of a living fetus, one staffer confessed, “I only do what I’m told.”
Monsters like Gosnell find an outlet for their cruelty largely under the protection of American abortion law. Third trimester abortion is simply not as regulated as most Americans imagine. The Supreme Court, for example, allows abortion into the third trimester in cases of emotional distress, a fairly broad and sometimes abused loophole.
Worse, there is very little governmental oversight of abortion clinics. Despite numerous complaints, Pennsylvania state health authorities simply gave Gosnell slaps on wrist and had not bothered to visit his clinics since 1993, when Governor Tom Ridge’s pro-choice administration came to power. According to the grand jury report, state officials in the Ridge administration “concluded that inspections would be ‘putting up a barrier to women’ seeking abortions.”
Self-regulation, of course, doesn’t work so well when those in the pro-choice movement are reluctant to blow the whistle on butchers like Gosnell. According to the grand jury report, Gosnell actually sought membership in the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which upholds high health standards for its member clinics. The NAF official who visited Gosnell’s clinic found “it was the worst clinic she had ever seen.” Yet “she never told anyone in authority about all the horrible, dangerous things she had seen.”
Gosnell simply did whatever he wanted for some 30 years with little disturbance from the state of Pennsylvania. The grand jury report found that “Gosnell made little effort to hide his illegal abortion practice.” He didn’t need to. As sociologist James Hunter explained, “Pro-life advocates are not too far off the mark when they argue that ‘abortion is the largest unregulated business in America.’”
Unless something is done, there will be more Kermit Gosnells, since late-term abortion is a lucrative enterprise and therefore attractive to those who don’t mind the horror. The grand jury estimated that Gosnell’s clinic took in $10,00 to $15,000 every business day.
The political obstacles to intelligent regulation are formidable, however. Pro-choice activists fear it as a dangerous concession to pro-lifers. Opponents of abortion, meanwhile, do little to temper such fears, often seeking regulations that are needlessly costly by demanding excessive red tape.
Yet, despite these obstacles, perhaps there is enough common ground to do what should have been done decades ago: effectively ban the very abortions that only sociopaths can stomach. Doing so will not only protect the lives of women from doctors without scruples, it will also affirm our common moral sensibilities.
Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.