Yes, Let’s Talk About Kermit Gosnell

Kermit Gosnell is on trial in Philadelphia, charged with eight counts of murder at his grisly abortion clinic. The Associated Press covered the opening proceedings of a trial expected to last eight weeks. A New York Times reporter was also present when the trial opened. His story appeared on page A17, which apparently wasn’t prominent enough for conservatives who are complaining that the media is under-covering the story because, as Charles Krauthammer put it, it places the issue of late-term abortion “starkly into relief.”

Gosnell is charged with illegally performing third trimester abortions, and slitting the spines of the babies, acts that were loudly condemned by pro-choice advocates. It doesn’t bring the issue of late-term abortion “starkly into relief”; it’s the story of a monster completely flouting the law and medical standards. When the story came to light more than two years ago, legitimate providers made that perfectly clear

Is Gosnell’s trial getting the same level of coverage on cable as, say, the Jodi Arias trial? No. But that’s a question about the media’s priorities in general, rather than some sort of ideologically-driven fear that the pro-choice position would be exposed. Proponents of safe, legal abortion do not fear any light shed on this awful episode. To the contrary, they were some of the first to condemn Gosnell when the details of a grand jury report were made public in January 2011 and Gosnell was first charged.  

As Irin Carmon shows, there is no media cover-up of Gosnell. If you’ve missed the story, “It’s probably because you failed to pay attention to the copious coverage among pro-choice and feminist journalists, as well as the big news organizations, when the news first broke in 2011.” Among it: Tara Murtha’s extensive coverage in the Philadalphia Weekly.  

Other prominent examples include Michelle Goldberg writing in The Daily Beast, “Here is something the most doctrinaire pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates can probably agree on: If Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell is guilty of even a fraction of the carnage he’s been charged with, he should spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Rachel Walden, writing at Women’s Health News: “Let me be perfectly clear: it is an abomination when women cannot receive safe, legal abortion services. What happened at Kermit Gosnell’s ‘clinic’ is unacceptable at any time, in any place.”

In The Nation, Katha Pollitt hardly minced words:

Blood-spattered floors. Cat feces. Broken equipment. A 15-year-old giving anesthesia. Two women dead, countless more maimed and injured. Third-trimester fetuses delivered alive whose spines were then severed by the doctor. This was the Women’s Medical Society in West Philadelphia. This is what illegal abortion looks like.

Now conservatives are suggesting that reporters are in the tank for the pro-choice cause and are (preposterously) therefore afraid to cover the trial that will reveal the moral bankruptcy of the cause. (Kermit Gosnell no more proves that abortion providers are evil than this guy proves that all dentists are evil.) Dave Weigel suggests, “if you’re pro-choice, say, and you worry that the Gosnell story is being promoted only to weaken your cause, you really should read that grand jury report,” because it tells a story of lax, incompetent, or under-funded regulatory system, or possibly one fearful of the politics of a fight over an abortion clinic. No one is actually worried about Gosnell weakening their cause, yet Weigel concludes: “Social conservatives are largely right about the Gosnell story.” He needs to read some background material.

Two years ago, just after Gosnell was charged, Carole Joffe, a sociologist who studies reproductive rights and health, made clear at RH Reality Check that reproductive health advocates are not afraid that the lax-regulator-angle hurts their cause, but rather, like anyone concerned with health and safety, want answers: “What remains baffling is how long this clinic was allowed to operate, in spite of numerous complaints made over the years to city and state agencies, and numerous malpractice suits against Dr. Gosnell. Indeed, it was only because authorities raided the clinic due to suspicion of lax practices involving prescription drugs that the conditions facing abortion patients came to law enforcement’s attention.”

Joffe noted, as others had, that the Gosnell horrors demonstrated what happened in the pre-Roe days of back-alley abortions. But she made a further, crucial point that these horrors occur even when abortion is legal, but difficult to afford or access for many women:

Women’s Medical Society represents to me an extreme version of what I have termed “rogue clinics,” facilities that today prey on women, disproportionately women of color and often immigrants, in low income communities.

In my recent book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars, I wrote:

“that such clinics can flourish until the inevitable disaster occurs… is a ‘perfect storm’ caused by the marginalization of abortion care from mainstream medicine, the lack of universal health care in the United States, and the particular difficulties facing undocumented immigrants in obtaining health care.”

All these factors helped explain why women came to Gosnell’s clinic, in spite of its location in Philadelphia, a city with several reputable abortion facilities. Among the saddest things I have read in the wake of this disaster is the account of a Philadelphia social worker, pointing out that the community health center which serves the same low-income neighborhood in which the Gosnell clinic was located is considered to be one of the city’s best facilities. But as a recipient of federal funding, of course this center could not offer abortion care.

So why did Gosnell’s patients not go to a better, i.e. safer, abortion clinic, for example, the Planned Parenthood in downtown Philadelphia, no more than a few miles from Women’s Medical Society? One very poignant answer to this comes from a statement that one of Gosnell’s patients made to the Associated Press. The woman had initially gone to this Planned Parenthood for a scheduled abortion, but “the picketers out there, they scared me half to death.” 

Another reason women came to Gosnell’s clinic is that he undercut everyone else’s prices. As numerous abortion clinic managers have told me over the years, for very poor women—who are way over-represented among abortion patients—differences of even five or ten dollars can be the deciding factor of where to go. The price list at Women’s Medical Society, listed in the Grand jury report, shows that in 2005, a first trimester procedure was $330.00, while the average price nationally then was about one hundred dollars higher. For a 23-24 week procedure, Gosnell charged $1625.00, while the relatively few other facilities in the Northeast offering such abortions would have charged at least one thousand more.

Still another reason drawing women to this clinic was that it became widely known that Gosnell was willing to flout the law and perform post-viability (i.e. post-24 week) abortions even in cases where women did not meet the very strict legal guidelines of a life-threatening or serious illness or were carrying a fetus with a lethal anomaly. In a horribly unfair vicious cycle, the poorest women often take time to raise the funds for an abortion, and then find themselves past the cutoff for procedures available early on—and facing a higher cost for an abortion. When women in these situations realize that they neither have the funds to pay for a later procedure, and/or can’t find a reputable provider that will perform their procedures after 24 weeks, they end up at places like Women’s Medical Society.

Now comes Matt Lewis, using the alleged Gosnell-undercoverage as Exhibit A in his column on why newspapers need to hire more Christians. “Why does this matter?” Lewis asks. Because “this sort of diversity isn’t just important because of the creeping worldview bias, but also in terms of selection bias.” (They sound ominous, whatever those biases are.) He cites Kristen Powers’ column in USA Today, complaining about the lack of Gosnell coverage, and gives the big reveal about her own bias: “Powers’ faith no doubt informs her journalism, probably making it more likely that she will cover stories about abortion and human trafficking that some of her colleagues might not be as likely to explore.” Non-Christian reporters never cover those topics? That’s news to me.

Ah, but what do the readers want? As I read Lewis’ column, the top-read story at The Week was titled, “The New Bride Who Had A Horrifying Reaction To Her Husband’s Sperm.” 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email