Art by Daiana Feuer


Photo by Art by Daiana Feuer

Why the Kermit Gosnell Case is About Murder, Not Abortion

The trial of the Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of eight counts of murder has reopened debate around abortion and health care for poor women.

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The details of Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s alleged crimes are so gruesome that they seem to be taken from Eli Roth’s Hostel horror movies.

In this true-life nightmare, women’s reproductive organs were punctured at the hands of untrained quasi-nurses. Unsanitized medical equipment infected women with venereal diseases. Full-term babies, induced into delivery using drugs, were killed after they passed out of the birth canal. A woman died on the table from an unsafe dose of Demerol. Blood was smeared on the walls of the clinic; dismembered body parts found stashed in freezers and jars.

From the Grand Jury report: “A stench of urine filled the air. A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat feces on the stairs. Semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with blood-stained blankets.”

It’s a real-life horrow-show that resulted in the doctor, now 72, being charged with eight counts of murder. But shockingly, the Gosnell trial—which started March 18 and is expected to last another month —has only received high-profile attention in the last week. And that attention has been largely focused on why the media isn’t covering the story – which isn’t even accurate, by the way. As Salon noted, the feminist press and right-wing media have been following since day one, when the gory 281-page Grand Jury report was released last year.

The problem is that the case has been yanked around like a rag-doll, either taken as evidence by the right that abortion is always murderous, or proof that we need more safe, legal abortion so that women don’t have to turn to the likes of Gosnell. The press’s focus has been on the “abortions” that Gosnell performed, but that is erroneous and misleading. The very word, abortionist, is a loaded one – suggestive of a person who isn’t first and foremost a medical doctor, usually a gynecologist.

One of the biggest issues is that the mainstream media’s lack of coverage has allowed anti-abortion sites to set the tone and control the language of how the case is covered. While it is true that many of his patients (many of whom were poor, uninsured, and immigrant women) came to him for legal second-term abortions, defining what Gosnell performed on many of his victims as abortion, pure and simple, is altogether wrong.

Gosnell, it will be proven, is a murderer by definition. If he’s convicted, he should rot for the murder of living babies, as well as the death of the 41-year old Karnamaya Mongar.

The Nepalese refuge traveled out of state to go to his “clinic” for a second-trimester abortion. She was more than 18 weeks along, and sought out Gosnell when she couldn’t get an abortion elsewhere. According to the Grand Jury report, she was given too many drugs and left to languish unsupervised for hours before the family insisted an ambulance be called. She died the next day.

Regarding his other charges, seven babies—babies, not fetuses—were killed after their births were induced by drugs. They were as old as 26 weeks—with one baby being so fully developed a staff member joked, “This baby is big enough to walk around with me.”

Gosnell is charged with severing the spinal cords of screaming, crying infants, after as many as 20 minutes after they’d been born. According to the Grand Jury report, he called this practice “snipping.”

That’s not abortion. That’s murder.

The case is jarring, not just for the baby killings, but for the discrimination women experienced at the clinic. According to testimony from a former employee, poor, black, or immigrant women were seen by his unlicensed medical staff at a cheaper rate; white women from the suburbs were seen by the only actual physician, Gosnell, who is African American. (When the employee questioned him about the different tiers of service, Gosnell allegedly replied “That’s the way of the world.”) Gosnell’s clinic preyed on the fact that more women of color seek abortions than white women. According to the U.S. Census, 48.2 percent of black women get abortions compared to 13.8 percent white women. It should go without saying that the poorer and more uneducated you are, the less access to affordable, safe health care you will have. The length of time is unprecedented; it took 18 years before Gosnell’s clinic was seriously investigated. The sheer scope of Gosnell’s alleged crimes—from the alleged pill mill that he ran out of the clinic to the number of women who were permanently sterilized, infected or maimed, is jaw-dropping.

The Gosnell trial has reinvigorated the debate about late-term abortions but the debate would be better considered by all sides if it wasn’t attached to such an incendiary case. Gosnell, by offering abortions after 24 weeks (he even openly advertised for them) was already operating far outside the state’s law. Unlike the four doctors featured in After Tiller, a documentary about the only physicians in the country who perform third-trimester abortions, he didn’t carefully weigh their needs against the risks. He didn’t consider whether or not the women’s lives would be better off if he performed the procedure, or if their health would be endangered. No, Gosnell simply answered to the almighty god of cold, hard cash.

The Gosnell case underscores the need for better health care for poor women – and that includes safe and legal abortion that isn’t driven underground or restricted by laws like the one recently passed in North Dakota. Using scare tactics to paint Gosnell’s actions as being about abortion not murder will ensure a fertile breeding ground for more “doctors” like Gosnell, not fewer. And that’s the real horror.

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