Opinion

How others view the Gosnell trial

byMichael Pakaluk
5/17/2013

First I will say how (I hope) you and I look at the Kermit Gosnell trial, and then I will describe how others view it. These others include, on a reasonable reckoning, most of the main-stream media, the Obama administration, most law professors now, perhaps several members of the Supreme Court, and also about 95 percent of college professors.

It is highly important for you to grasp the strange way that these other persons view something that should be as plain as the Gosnell trial, because you need to be clear about, for instance, whether you really want to spend large sums of money to have your children educated by people who think in this way, or whether you really want the culture of our country to move irrevocably in that direction.

Gosnell did late abortions in Philadelphia, making money hand over fist doing so, in a backroom clinic that was dirty and in disarray. According to the Grand Jury report, many aborted babies were born alive, which he killed mostly by snipping their spinal columns in the back of the neck with scissors. He harmed mothers as well by rushing through abortions and not treating complications. After a lengthy trial filled with sensationalistic details of the sort that the media would usually lap up -- but in this case ignored -- he was found guilty last week of murder and manslaughter.

You (I hope) and I view Gosnell as something like a vivid representation of all abortion in general, this generation's "Silent Scream." Obviously, it makes no difference whether you snip the baby's spinal column after it is born, or whether, when it is still in the womb, you pull out its limbs piece-by-piece (as in a "D and E" abortion) so that is never born. The baby's transition from being in the womb to being outside cannot magically convert a permissible attack into an objectionable attack. And whatever makes it wrong to attack that just-to-be-born baby makes it wrong to kill any unborn baby younger than it.

Obviously too, in killing the born babies, Gosnell was hardly acting with any special criminal mind but supposing, rightly, that that is what everyone wanted. It may be too much to say that every woman who seeks an abortion wants a dead baby, but she certainly does not want to be presented with a live baby at the end of her abortion clinic visit.

It's not unexpected that Gosnell's clinic was dirty and badly managed. Why should a doctor who has so disastrously rejected the "above all do no harm" of the Hippocratic Oath suddenly become fastidious about much lesser harms? He might indeed, but it would be no surprise if he did not. Vice typically brings along with it ugliness, carelessness, and filth.

Gosnell's adult victims were desperate, but desperation is the main motive of abortion -- because the father has abandoned the mother, or what was meant to be casual sex now threatens to imply a life-long and life-sacrificing commitment.

So Gosnell does represent all abortion. He makes plain the nature of abortion in general. And a sensible person will think: in doing so he discredits the "right" and the "cause." It is near blasphemy to say that a claim of right covers the sort of thing that Gosnell did. Anyone who fails to set himself against this sort of thing lacks moral credibility. Even, we seem to be insensible if, although not directly responsible for it, you and I do not repent and do atonement.

But those others see Gosnell in a very different way. First, they are still wondering whether the babies with the snipped spinal columns really were alive: for instance, a major newspaper has continued to report, even after the convictions, merely that prosecutors "had alleged" that Gosnell had killed living babies -- whereas his own attorneys always denied that this was so. (Yes, skepticism and carelessness as to whether the unborn are alive can go even that far.)

Then, they say, the problem with Gosnell was the unprofessionalism of his clinic, not what he did. Obviously a competent abortionist would have made sure that no babies came out alive! It was not what Gosnell did, but the way that he did it -- the bad technique, the poor appearance, the apparent inconsistencies created -- which was so unfortunate.

Actually, these people hold, the anti-abortion movement is mainly responsible for Gosnell, because anti-abortionists have created such a strong stigma against abortion that responsible abortion providers are increasingly rare.

If some women sought abortions after the fetus was viable, then there must have been a good reason for that, and it is not our role to second guess. As for the sensationalistic details of blood and tissue -- all surgery produces that, and we must not allow squeamishness to interfere with the practice of a solemn constitutional right. Necessity often compels us to do distasteful things.

Now, about a quarter of Americans would view the Gosnell trial as I do (and I hope you also). About a quarter, which is influential, think as these others do and resist with absolute tenacity any change in the "right" to abortion, for any reason, through all nine months of pregnancy. But the former group supposedly are the "extremist fanatics" -- a charge which could not be believed if the Gosnell trial became central to public consciousness.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and the author of "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God" (Ignatius).