Let’s be honest about Kermit Gosnell’s abortion ‘house of horrors’
The only cover up happening about Gosnell’s abortions is how pro-life activists deserve some of the blame
By now you’ve hopefully heard about the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Pennsylvania doctor who allegedly ran a filthy health clinic where he performed illegal abortion procedures. Gosnell is accused of killing seven premature babies and one woman, among other crimes. Pro-choice and lefty journalists covered Gosnell years ago, when the grand jury report detailing the allegations was initially filed. Now the trial is under way, and anti-abortion activists are insisting there’s been a cover up by ideologues intent on averting honest discussion about the case in order to suit a cynical politics agenda.
They’re right. But the ideologues doing the cover up are on the pro-life side.
Coverage of shocking crimes often plays out the same way: there’s a lot of coverage when charges are first filed or an arrest is made, and then again when a verdict comes down. While Nancy Grace and cable news may offer wall-to-wall coverage of a handful of trials every year, for the most part, reputable national publications cover news when it happens, which isn’t in a state court trial play-by-play. Local media does that.
That’s exactly what’s happened during the Gosnell trial. When the grand jury report was first filed, it got attention from almost every major writer who covers reproductive rights and gender issues – Amanda Marcotte at Slate, Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast, Katha Pollitt at the Nation, Kate Harding at Salon, Lori Adelman at the Grio. Mainstream media, too covered it: the New York Times, CNN, NPR, CBS, the Washington Post, Time magazine. That was in 2011. Now that the trial is underway, local Pennsylvania media has covered it, with reporter Tara Murtha doing a particularly thorough job. When a verdict is handed down, it will undoubtedly be in the national spotlight again.
So why are anti-abortion activists claiming that no one is covering the trial? And why are usually reputable, fairly moderate male writers believing them?
The goal of “pro-life” activists isn’t to draw attention to an illegal butcher in order to protect women and babies. The braying about Gosnell is a ploy to shame the media into covering the issue from the anti-abortion perspective, conflating the illegal procedures performed by Gosnell with safe, legal abortion. That conflation is necessary for the pro-life side to use the media coverage to promote unnecessary regulations of clinics, purposed solely to make abortion less accessible, and advocate for the very things that allowed Gosnell’s clinic to exist in the first place.
Understanding why women went to Gosnell requires understanding just how inaccessible abortion is for low-income women, who are disproportionately women of color, and for rural women. The most common reason women give for terminating a pregnancy is economic: they can’t afford a child. A majority of women seeking abortions already have at least one child, and know exactly how difficult and rewarding parenthood can be. Forty-two percent of women who terminate pregnancies live under the poverty line, and another 27% live close to it, meaning nearly 70% of women who have abortions are already living in financially perilous circumstances.
Low-income women who rely on mediciad and Title X for their health care aren’t able to use federal funds to pay for abortion, thanks to the anti-choice Hyde Amendment, which segregates abortion out into a unique category of medical procedures that poor women must fund out of pocket. Things aren’t necessarily better for women with private insurance: eight states have laws on the books that prevent private insurance companies from covering elective abortions. Ongoing attacks on Planned Parenthood and funding for contraception have also made it more difficult for low-income women to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
Anti-abortion terrorists have succeeded in scaring a good number of doctors, nurses and staff out of working at abortion clinics, either by flat-out shooting doctors and bombing facilities or by engaging in extended harassment and intimidation campaigns. Ninety percent of abortion clinics report experiencing some type of harassment. Without employees willing to risk their lives, clinics close, and women have to travel farther – and spend more money – for care. Eighty-seven percent of US counties have no abortion clinic, and women in vast swaths of the country have to travel hundreds of miles in order to obtain an abortion. Once they get to the clinic, they can at times be greeted by a crowd of aggressive protestors. At least one woman said she went to Gosnell’s clinic to avoid the anti-abortion mobs outside a more reputable one.
Anti-abortion ideologues have also succeeded in passing laws that require doctors to tell women outright lies about abortion that no reputable medical organizations back – for example, that abortion causes breast cancer, that fetuses feel pain or that women who terminate pregnancies have long-term mental health problems.
Twenty-six states have mandatory waiting periods, where women are treated like incompetent children and forced to go home and think about their requested abortion for 24 or 48 hours. Since patients are required to have the initial consultation in person, that means that a woman traveling for an abortion either has to make the trip twice in a few days or stay for multiple nights in a hotel. For low-income women, those added costs for gas, the bus, childcare and housing, in addition to the cost of the abortion procedure itself and lost wages from a day or three off of work, can be prohibitive.
Scraping together several hundred dollars or more, when several hundred dollars is more disposable income than you usually see all year, takes weeks or months. It requires borrowing money from friends, pawning jewelry or unnecessary items, working overtime, scrimping on food, or doing whatever necessary to put aside a few dollars at a time. While a woman is desperately trying to save up money to end a pregnancy, the pregnancy progresses, and abortion gets both more complicated and more expensive. Impediments to abortion don’t actually decrease the abortion rate, but they do increase the late-term abortion rate, and they do make things more difficult, shameful and expensive for women seeking to terminate pregnancies.
One in three American women will terminate a pregnancy in her life. Many of these women could be helped by universal health care, contraception coverage, sexual health education, affordable daycare and a variety of other policies routinely promoted by feminists and opposed by pro-life Republicans. But instead of giving women the tools to both prevent unintended pregnancy and care for wanted children, the “pro-life” right dedicates its money and effort making abortion more difficult and more dangerous. The goal isn’t the promote life, it’s to punish women.
That’s where the Gosnell case comes in. Troy Newman, a pro-life leader and the president of Operation Rescue, is among the loudest voices sounding the Gosnell alarm. He’s also talking about how Gosnell is a gift from God to the pro-life movement. What Gosnell is accused of doing in his clinic is horrifying and illegal, which is why he’s on trial. His illegal acts are no more an indictment of safe, legal abortion than one child-molesting doctor is an indictment of all pediatricians. But pro-lifers like Newman are glad Gosnell exists, because they can use him to tar all abortion providers. These are the folks who want abortion to be dangerous, gruesome and unregulated. Of course they’re thrilled that they finally found a real villain. The senior policy advisor of Newman’s organization, by the way, is a “pro-life” activist who served two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic. That woman, Cheryl Sullenger, is also a regular contributor to LifeSite News, a leading anti-abortion website. It’s not that there are bad apples in the anti-abortion movement; the bad apples are the movement.
We shouldn’t be covering Gosnell just because a handful of anti-abortion loudmouths demand we do. We should cover Gosnell because the case is newsworthy, which is why so many media outlets did cover it when the grand jury report was filed. In covering the case, we should also look at how to prevent future Gosnells. The pro-choice movement has an answer: remove the barriers that made vulnerable women go to Gosnell in the first place. Make safe, early abortion accessible and affordable, and help women prevent pregnancy in the first place. The pro-life answer is to double down on abortion restrictions and outlaw the procedure wholesale, a move that would do little more than create many more Gosnell-style houses of horror.
The Gosnell case is a story precisely because it is unusual. Before abortion was legal across the country, women dying from botched abortions wasn’t particularly newsworthy. Legal abortion in the United States is today one of the safest medical procedures around. It becomes dangerous when it’s outlawed or functionally illegal, and when women are desperate and shamed.
Widespread adoption of pro-life laws created one Gosnell. We shouldn’t make more.