In early 2011, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was arrested on charges of murder related to his abortion services: one charge for the death of a woman who had sought an abortion at his Philadelphia clinic, and seven additional charges for the killings of infants that had been born alive. The grand jury report on Gosnell’s clinic contained a variety of emotional appeals that were largely irrelevant to the actual charges, and at the time, the sensationalized report received wide coverage and was frequently used to attack abortion generally. My partner Heather analyzed the report and its subsequent coverage, and found many arguments by the grand jury and the media to be lacking. Many magazines and publications refused to print her analysis, and now that the trial of Gosnell has begun and these same arguments have flared up once more, we’ve chosen to republish her piece here. -Zinnia
Looking Gosnell in the Eye
by Heather McNamara
In the wake of the release of the grisly grand jury report and the media firestorm surrounding the atrocities at Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic, we, as pro-choice feminists, have been posed a difficult question. Basted in gruesome quotes, the emotional appeals from the pro-lifers (and more reserved pro-choicers) who read the report are everywhere and seem to ask, “Did you know it was this gruesome?” The responses from pro-choice advocates have been reserved – usually articles featuring calming, tranquil images of very pregnant women in silhouette standing by windows, presumably contemplating all the trials and joys ahead of her, and certainly not crying on the bathroom floor with a positive pregnancy test. “Think of the women!”, we say, “think of the babies”, they say, and nobody seems to be answering the question: well, did you know it was that gruesome?
The difference between flashing the grand jury report and flashing large poster images of aborted fetuses in front of clinics is subtle but effective. Gosnell broke the law. He kept an unsanitary facility; he performed abortions that were so late term that they should have been done, assuming they were legal, in hospitals where better monitoring was available; he did not properly care for his patients; and he was arguably negligent with the way he prescribed drugs. These things are absolutely wrong, and no doctor, no matter how much good they intend, should be recklessly endangering lives. Each and every woman who sought the help of Dr. Gosnell deserved a safe, clean, well-staffed clinic. It’s difficult to argue that the abortions Gosnell performed were not wrong, because there were clearly so many things he did that were wrong.
However, there is no connection between the lives Gosnell endangered and the ethicality of abortion, and some of the things in the grand jury report that disgust us – jokes about the fetuses being “so big they could walk me to the bus stop”, for example – are things that could happen in clean, professionally staffed clinics. There is no law against bad taste. So why were they even mentioned in the grand jury report? Among the shocking and frankly manipulative language contained within, we find outright misleading quotes such as “these women were giving birth” to refer to the induced contractions to dilate cervices, “he played with the baby” to refer to his touching the fetus’s hands, and “he stuck the scissors into the back of their necks” to refer to a method of terminating a fetus that has long been widely recognized as entirely valid and comparatively humane. The proper vernacular is “intact dilation and extraction”. Quotes like these, considered rationally, should not compel us to question abortion, but instead should make us question the state of mind and competency of the grand jury. In legal contexts, emotional appeals are out of place.
The reality is: medical procedures can be violent, visceral events. Every day in hospitals everywhere, people are bruised, broken, and cut open. Ribcages are cracked open, skin sliced open, veins burned and yanked out, sensitive areas cut, and burns scraped. These things are done to help and save people. The inner workings, procedures, ethics, and yes, tasteless jokes in any clinic could be detailed in such a way as to turn you off the idea of healthcare forever, but that does not make anyone’s need for it any less valid.
Dr. Gosnell ended the lives of some fetuses, which, left alone, would have become cute little bouncing pink babies in adorable little outfits. He cut into the backs of their necks and severed their spinal cords. Legitimate abortion providers also do this. They dilate women’s cervices, which can be painful, they terminate fetuses, and they cut flesh. And so what? Does the weakness or strength of your constitution, or anyone else’s, comprise a valid basis for granting or removing a woman’s control over her most precious domain – her body?
These arguments exist for one purpose: to desensitize us to the plight of the presumably healthy, if scared and distraught pregnant women we imagine, and turn our attention instead to the horror we can observe. They’ve caught us at a vulnerable time when several states are introducing bills to limit and outright deny access to abortion. Now is not the time to be squeamish. Now is the time when we, as feminists, can show we’re not afraid to confront the difficult and unpleasant realities of abortion – the disturbing bloody images, the fact that sometimes women don’t actually have a Very Good Reason to be seeking one, and even the unfortunate physical and emotional consequences that sometimes follow. Once we acknowledge that these things are there and real and unpleasant, we can continue to assert our right to do it anyway, and in doing this, remove their power over us.
Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.