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the Kermit Gosnell trial

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

I’ve been watching the trial of Kermit Gosnell with some interest ever since I first heard about it back in 2011.

If you haven’t heard Gosnell is an abortion doctor (and I use that term loosely) who ran a shop of horrors clinic in Pennsylvania. From the accounts I read conditions were unsanitary to put it extremely mildly. One woman died, and three babies were born alive and had their necks cut – murder all around. Gosnell specialized in late-term abortions and also got in trouble on that front: he carried out abortions past the point Pennsylvania allows it. Of course people who aren’t on board with late-term abortions –and I have to admit, they make me very uneasy, particularly past the point of viability, though I’m not sure making them illegal is the answer– would be equally horrified by the “successful” abortions, the ones where a fetus was killed in the womb and then delivered as a stillborn.

Interestingly, though, you dont have to be pro-life to be horrified by Gosnell or to be moved to action against him. A few months ago some pro-life advocacy groups asked the mainstream media why they hadn’t been talking about the case. Mainstream media didn’t really get into the act until very late in the game, but the pro-choice and feminist blogosphere had been all over this trial back during the grand jury trial. They hadn’t said much since then, but that was largely because no new facts were coming out that you didn’t hear at the grand jury trial. To the pro-life movement, Gosnell was an example of what happened when women didn’t have access to safe, regulated abortions. Various regulatory organizations in PA had complaints and chose not to act on them, and one explanation I’ve heard for that is that regulating abortion agencies has so often been used as a way to restrict abortion access. Pro-life groups lobby to introduce unnecessary regulations often enough, and pro-choice groups start to view any regulation as suspect. Of course the government isn’t an advocacy group and it really should have investigated; but it makes sense to me that in these situations the government might be reluctant to investigate, if the employees had sympathies or just expected a push-back from pro-choice groups.

My own position tends to be middle-of-the-road. I think abortion has major moral implications, and if you’re going to have sex you have a duty to try to prevent pregnancy through contraception and, if contraception fails, to act as quickly as you can. Morning-after pills don’t cause abortions, and while they’re less reliable and more costly than traditional BC, if you have sex without contraception or the contraception malfunctions, you have an obligation to act. And from that point on, you have an obligation to act as quickly as you can. But there’s a flip-side to it: society has an obligation to give women, particularly more disadvantaged women, the tools to prevent pregnancy, both through making BC accessible and providing sex education that teaches about contraception. When you put up hoops for women to get their hands on the morning-after pill, you make it more likely they’ll need an abortion down the line. Really, the only abortions we should even be discussing should be cases where situations change – we need a culture of people being responsible for the consequences of sex and one where we make contraception and early abortion much easier to get than it currently is.

That’s a moral position, and it relies on the idea that there really is a moral difference between abortion a few days into a pregnancy than several months in. I think there is and I think it has to do both with how developed the fetus is and with how long a woman has allowed the fetus to use her body. (There’s an implicit bond that builds up over time between mother and child and gives the mother a special duty to nurture the child, I think, that isn’t there at the moment of conception.) I’m not entirely comfortable with using the law to force women to meet this duty, for a variety of reasons. But I’m a lot more comfortable with laws that restrict late-term abortions when we’ve gotten rid of the hurdles that keep mothers, particularly teens and disadvantaged women like the people Gosnell preyed upon, from accessing BC and early abortions.

(And of course men are also responsible for making sure contraception is used, but that’s a different question. I’m talking about the mothers here for simplicity sake.)

Getting back to Gosnell, one of the things that fascinates me about this trial is the way different groups relate to it. I think both pro-choice and pro-life groups look at situations like this and think it should never be allowed to happen again. I know I was outraged! But they tend to be upset by slightly different things. I think pro-choice people are upset that women wouldn’t have access to affordable abortions or abortions earlier in the process. They look at Gosnell’s clinic and they see the world before Roe, a series of bloody hangers. Pro-life people on the other hand see the visceral reaction many of us feel, not as a reaction to a particularly gruesome, abusive clinic but as a reaction to abortion full-stop. They will say there’s no real moral difference between killing a child after birth and killing a child just before birth, and I pretty much agree with them there. But then step by step, we compare fetuses along the continuum of conception to birth and see that it’s, well, a continuum. So if one day shy of birth is just as wrong as one day after birth, is the fetus two days before birth really so much less worth protecting than the one a single day before birth? And on down the line. I think that to a lot of people on the pro-choice side, they look at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic and think that every abortion doctor is like him in the worst parts of his crime. Those other doctors just aren’t so gruesome and open about it.

I tend to side with the pro-choice crowd here, because I think the pro-life side is making a big leap of logic. While any two cases might be morally similar, there’s a big difference in the qualities a just-conceived zygote has and a just-about-to-be-born fetus has. If we’re talking potential, that’s a different conversation and I think the pro-life crowd has a better case there, but that’s not the case that’s being made. Rather, I hear pro-life people saying that we are rightly disgusted at the killing of just-born babies and very uneasy even with the late-term abortions, but that where we’re wrong is to think that other abortions of earlier-term fetuses aren’t just as gruesome.

What’s really interested me, though, is how the two sides don’t even seem to hear each other. To the point that a mainstream evangelical news site out of the UK referred to the case itself as controversial – to hear them say it, only pro-lifers thought Gosnell had done anything wrong! And that’s simply not the case.

All of which leaves me feeling discouraged that at least in America we can’t discuss this issue more calmly. It’s a gloriously nuanced issue touching on the purpose of the law, how to balance competing goods, the source of parental obligation, etc. –and that’s even aside from the many ways it’s not just an issue (real lives are at stake here, both mothers’ and children’s)– but I’ve run into so many people coming from both the pro-life and pro-choice angles who simply can’t see that nuance. It’s very difficult to take any kind of middle ground in America these days, to the point that it seems like pro-choice and pro-life people talk past each other more than seeing the places where there’s some overlap. That’s one lesson I believe the Gosnell case proves quite well.

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