Looking Gosnell in the Eye

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.

Looking Gosnell in the Eye

15 thoughts on “Looking Gosnell in the Eye

    1. 1.1

      You’re using the race card? *facepalm* I seriously doubt there is a significant or notable amount of people who don’t give a crap about the deaths because they’re not white. This is as silly as the arguments about Amanda Todd’s suicide. “They only care because she’s white!” I don’t appreciate such random guesses like this -ever-. And yeah, it’s random. There is no observable reason to think that. It only shows the race-oriented thinking of the card puller.

  1. 2

    I am certainly not going to work up any sympathy for someone who appears, by all accounts, to be a monster.

    As for the inflammatory rhetoric around abortion procedures — well, it’s certainly accurate. Vividly so. Hiding behind the “clinical” or “proper” terminology is just a way to get people to not think too hard about what’s being done — even in centers that follow the law.

    I suppose that’s OK. We do the same about killing and eating animals. I notice that none of the cooking shows on TV start with “Sally the Hog” or “Gertrude the Chicken” and end up with “her” being eaten. We don’t really want to watch sausage being made. It has to be kept behind closed doors, away from polite society.

    Let’s be honest — the process of abortion is brutal. Moreso the further along the pregnancy is. That doesn’t take away the fact that it should be the woman’s right to make that choice, within the confines of existing law. Nor does it eliminate the need for safe places for those procedures to happen. So that monsters like Gosnell would be unable to prey on the vulnerable. The more “real” abortion clinics there are, the less likely a Gosnell is to happen.

    1. 2.1

      I completely agree, I don’t know how graphics will get anyone. Unless you’re talking about painful abortions… then I completely disagree. Sorry, but that’s sadistic at worst, cold at best. Whether it’s a fetus of a puppy or a rat in there or the fetus of a baby or even the fetus of a blob that is going through torturous pain, I don’t approve of torturing things, and I can’t just “so what” that. C-section, sever spine… no need to be lazy, doctors.

  2. 3

    “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’

    A live baby that is delivered in the third trimester, breathing independently, moving, making sounds, having its spinal cord cut at birth? He is on trial for seven counts of murder of babies born alive and killed in this way. I am not clear what is being argued here; is this an example of abortion which should be defended or murder which must be distinguished from legitimate abortion?

    1. 3.1

      Hmm, dunno if they were cut out so that he could perform pain free abortions or what. Are you arguing that when the baby comes out, it shouldn’t be aborted? I taste a bit of Freud like defense mechanism. Anyway it sure beats crazy painful abortions in the womb.

      1. Is this satire?

        1) Once a fetus has been delivered, abortion is no longer relevant. An abortion refers to the termination of a pregnancy. With a delivered newborn, there is no longer a pregnancy. The pregnancy has already been terminated. You cannot abort a neonate. It is, by definition, impossible.

        2) Fetal pain? Seriously? We’ve just had this discussion all over the atheosphere, thanks to Dawkins’ ignorance. There is mounting evidence that there is no such thing, not until delivery because “the fetus never experiences a state of true wakefulness in utero and is kept, by the presence of its chemical environment, in a continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation.” Source. To suggest severing a neonate’s spinal cord is kinder than a “crazy painful abortion in the womb” is like claiming removing a kidney on a conscious patient is preferable to doing a “crazy painful organ harvest” under general anaesthesia.

        3) The right to abortion is one of bodily autonomy. Once a neonate is delivered, that right ceases to exist. The morality–and legality–of severing a neonate’s spinal cord is in a completely different arena from terminating a pregnancy. This may be a question of euthanasia, but has nothing to do with abortion.

        If Gosnell did as claimed, then he killed viable, independent neonates after inducing preterm delivery. Condemning those actions has nothing to do with condemning abortion or “Freudian defense mechanisms”.

        1. Bingo. We draw the line at fetal viability because after that point, a fetus can be delivered (technically, induced pre-term labor would still be abortion, as the pregnancy is being aborted before the woman’s body or fetus triggers the ‘normal’ end-cycle) live and allowed to continue to live. Once the fetus is out of the formerly-pregnant woman, the issue of bodily autonomy is resolved and the pregnancy is terminated. If the fetus is (possibly) viable at that point, it should not be euthanized, as euthanasia is illegal.

  3. 4

    What is your point with this? Are you seriously attempting to justify this disgusting murderer? The “fetuses” involved in the charges against Gosnell were born ALIVE, and OUTSIDE the womb and the woman’s body. Last time I checked, severing a living person’s spinal cord qualifies as murder. What this pig did is different from the abortions performed at other clinics like Planned Parenthood. In fact, it wasn’t even abortion at all.
    This has nothing to do with protecting your “most precious domain,” as you so eloquently put it. Gosnell wasn’t so great at doing that either, which I’m sure you know if you’ve read the whole case. It is a matter of violating not only the law but basic human rights. The fact that you would compare this man’s sickening, **illegal** acts to people getting bumps and bruises at the hospital is infuriating. I’m sorry the gory details were too much for you to handle. It’s much easier to hide behind medical jargon isn’t it?

    1. 4.1

      Soooooooooo. Did you read the piece before you got mad?

      Heather was arguing that using the crimes of Dr. Gosnell to argue that abortion should be illegal is a false equivalency. I do not see a single part where she says Gosnell is innocent, or not a murderer. Heather says that the report appears biased against not just Gosnell but the fact that abortions are performed at all.

      1. Be fair, this account is a lot kinder to Gosnell than any other I have read, and despite criticising the grand jury report for manipulative language (not unusual in a murder trial), it engages in quite a bit of that itself. For starters, the notion that the ‘proper vernacular’ should be one which hides the details comes over like special pleading, and the crimes of Gosnell are minimised eg

        he was arguably negligent with the way he prescribed drugs

        This refers to his killing a woman by repeated injections of out of date and unsafe anaesthetics

        no doctor, no matter how much good they intend, should be recklessly endangering lives.

        Implies that he was trying to do good rather than profit from his crimes

        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.

        But even if they had been performed in a medically competent way, they would still have been illegal since the majority of those late-term aborted babies were healthy and could have survived outside of the womb.

        This piece is not well written, if the point is that people who support abortion should condemn this man’s (unrepresentative) crimes while upholding the right to abortions performed legally then it does a bad job of arguing it.

    2. 4.2

      Kate, no one was comparing it to bumps and bruises. Stop extending the analogy. They never said they were completely analogous. Even an abortion inside the womb can’t be compared to bumps and bruises in a hospital.

      So, are you one of those people that feel better when you can’t see their spinal cord or something? I guess he should’ve stuffed the babies back in her vagina. And were the mothers passed out or what? I keep seeing people blame only the doctor for the ‘murders’. Even people who aren’t present for murders they helped plan get part of the blame in court. Unfortunately, the women in question died fucked up deaths trying to get abortions. But if that’s what some people think, I’m surprised that people claiming they were murder even care about the women who died? Where’s the “Hurdur, she deserved to die! Disgusting!” people?

      Well, I guess I’m glad they haven’t showed up.

  4. 5

    I’m sorry, but if this text was intended to defend the pro-choice cause against generalizations made based on the Gosnell case and its associated grand jury report, then it has failed miserably. I think you’re going too much on the defensive, here. You’re not speaking as a paragon of truth, but as an extremely radical feminist defending the right to kill babies/fetuses, no matter how developed/viable they are, at least that’s how it appears in certain passages (I’m assuming that it’s just a case of things being phrased in a way it’s easy to misinterpret them as opposed you actually supporting this view).
    When you say things like “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…”, compare abortions with medical procedures you explicitly state are meant to “save lives”, vilify the pro-life camp for making a pregnancy seem like it’s not necessarily something horrible and equate the killing of viable babies with the regular abortion of “fetuses, which, left alone, would have become cute little bouncing pink babies in adorable little outfits” (why the ridicule?), you’re providing the pro-life camp with exactly what it wants: statements which can be easily misrepresented to affirm the negative stereotype of pro-choice feminists as psychopaths spouting the motto “blood, gore, and infanticide!”
    Indeed intact dilation and extraction can be considered more humane than the common practice of dismembering the fetus and crushing its skull that occurs during D&E abortions. The point you seem to be making is that no matter how gruesome or humane an abortion is, this has no bearing on whether the death of the fetus is justified or not, and I agree with this point. But this argument is buried deep within a variety of pro-choice jokes and clichés, and is further detracted from because you seem to be telling us gruesome medical practices are a-okay and by extension abortion as well. You would’ve made a more convincing argument if you’d said “A case can be made in favor of more humane forms of abortion, but some abortions being gruesome has no bearing on the fact that women have a right to have abortions.” and also added more explicitly that killing viable babies is wrong, regardless of whether they’re born in a hospital or an abortion clinic. The closest I got to seeing the latter mentioned is “he performed abortions that were so late term they…” followed by “assuming they were legal”, which correctly implies that they weren’t. This is then enormously downplayed, however, by stating the major bad thing about it was that they should’ve been done in clean, well-staffed clinics. When your text downplays the killing of (viable!) babies being bad to ‘just a legality’ and presents the idea that the only thing Gosnell did wrong was that his clinic wasn’t clean and well-staffed enough isn’t something that is going to come across well to anyone sensible. I assume that’s not how you meant it, but it’s very easy to interpret it as being meant that way.

  5. 6

    I think the Gosnell story is an excellent example of why abortion should be legal, because women who need abortions will get them, whether they’re legal or not. Banning them would only push the business underground and make unsafe, unsanitary clinics like Gosnell’s a lot more common.

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