Why Kermit Gosnell hasn’t been on Page One

 

Dr. Kermit Gosnell in 2010. (Yong Kim/AP)

News outlets have been struggling to explain why until now there’s been so little coverage of the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of delivering live, screaming children and then beheading them.

The Post and other mainstream news outfits are on the story now, belatedly, so maybe critics like me shouldn’t act like the mother who, when you do call her, spends half the conversation asking why you haven’t called.

But, why wasn’t more written sooner? One colleague viewed Gosnell’s alleged atrocities as a local crime story, though I can’t think of another mass murder, with hundreds of victims, that we ever saw that way. Another said it was just too lurid, though that didn’t keep us from covering Jeffrey Dahmer, or that aspiring cannibal at the NYPD.

Yet another said it’s because the rest of the country doesn’t care about Philadelphia — that one was especially creative, I thought. And a friend argued that any “blackout” boiled down to the usual lack of media interest in the low-income community Gosnell “served.” (While he routinely turned poor, black patients over to assistants who lacked even a high school education, according to court testimony, the white patients he seated separately, and treated himself.)

I say we didn’t write more because the only abortion story most outlets ever cover in the news pages is every single threat or perceived threat to abortion rights. In fact, that is so fixed a view of what constitutes coverage of that issue that it’s genuinely hard, I think, for many journalists to see a story outside that paradigm as news. That’s not so much a conscious decision as a reflex, but the effect is one-sided coverage.

Now, I assign plenty of “rights under threat” stories myself, for She the People, and see them as perfectly valid. But we in the news business do cover the extremism of some who oppose abortion rights — attempts to run after pregnant women with transvaginal probes, for example — far more than we do the extremism of some who favor abortion rights, as per the Planned Parenthood’s Alisa LaPolt Snow, who said recently that when a baby somehow survives an abortion, it’s up to the woman, her family and her doctor to decide that child’s fate.

Two years ago, I wrote about the good doctor Gosnell’s “pro-choice enablers,” for Politics Daily:

“The ultimate non-partisan body – a criminal grand jury – has supplied us with the graphic, 261-page horror story of Kermit Gosnell, M.D., who stands accused of butchering seven babies – yes, after they were born alive — and fatally doping a refugee from Nepal with Demerol in a clinic that smelled of cat urine, where the furniture was stained with blood and the doctor kept a collection of severed baby feet. As often as possible, the report says, Gosnell induced labor for women so pregnant that, as he joked on one occasion, the baby was so big he could “walk me to the bus stop.” Then, hundreds of times over the years, he slit their little necks, according to the grand jury report:

[He] regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy – and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels – and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it.

And the kicker? This nightmare facility had not been inspected in 17 years – other than by someone from the National Abortion Federation, whom he actually invited there. For whatever reason, Gosnell applied for NAF membership two days after the death of the 41-year-old Nepalese woman, Karnamaya Mongar. Even on a day when the place had been scrubbed and spiffed up for the visit, the NAF investigator found it disgusting and rejected Gosnell’s application for membership. But despite noting many outright illegalities, including a padlocked emergency exit in a part of the clinic where women were left alone overnight, the grand jury report notes that the NAF inspector did not report any of these violations to authorities.”

My point, then and now, is that I am a big fan of regulation; wasn’t it the loosening of regs in the financial world that led to the meltdown of ’08 and in the oil industry to the BP spill of ’10? Those who normally agree with me about the need for oversight, though, make an exception when it comes to the abortion industry, which they feel should be self-regulating even when what that gets us is the likes of Kermit Gosnell.

The counter-argument, then and now, is that it’s the restriction of abortion rights that creates such shady operators, though there are other clinics in Philadelphia — and if his practice was restricted in any way over the years, I can’t see how.

Which “side” was Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Gosnell? Well, there’s no mystery about where Gosnell could have gotten the idea that his youngest victims weren’t human, or entitled to any protection under the law. There aren’t just two sides, though, but a whole continuum of points of view, from those who see several cells as a legal person to those who insist that even a baby who could walk Kermit Gosnell to the bus stop is only a person if his mom says so.

Gosnell himself seemed confused, when he was charged with so many counts of murder, as to how that could be. Because even at that point, he didn’t appear to see the children he’s accused of beheading as people.

Planned Parenthood’s Snow was similarly obtuse, either willfully or out of habit, in testifying against a Florida bill that would have required medical care for babies who survive abortions. “If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion,” she was asked, “what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?”

Her answer was a familiar one: “We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family and the physician.”

Though it pains me to say so, that’s the same stand Barack Obama effectively took when he voted against a similar Illinois bill — even after the addition of a “neutrality clause” spelling out that the bill would have no bearing on the legal status of the (you say fetus, I say unborn child) at any point prior to delivery, and thus could not be used to outlaw abortion.

Recently, MSNBC host Melissa Harris mocked those who see a fertilized egg as a fully human person: “I get,” she said, “that that’s a particular kind of faith claim that’s not associated with science.”

But I wish she and those who agree with her also got this: To insist that a baby born at 30 weeks, as one of Gosnell’s victims was, only qualifies as a person if his mom decides to keep him is also “a particular kind of faith claim that’s not associated with science.”

Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is a Post politics writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Diana Reese | April 15, 2013