Karnamaya Mongar is the name of the 41-year-old woman Kermit Gosnell is charged with murdering; she allegedly received high doses of anesthetic at his Philadelphia abortion clinic. The seven children Gosnell is accused of killing at his Women’s Medical Society, as it was called, didn’t have the chance to be named. They are what the trial of the Philadelphia abortion doctor is about. But in the media coverage – and the arguments over the amount and prominence of that coverage – those individuals often fade into the background.
The women and children of color, the alleged victims, need to be at the top of every story now guaranteed to be written about the Gosnell trial, not pushed off center stage, replaced by an agenda.
When the issue is abortion, the chance to play politics is too tempting. To be sure, the story has all the elements. You have a textbook villain who, according to testimony, showed callous disregard for his desperate patients. The alleged supporting players are his assistants, enablers with excuses, more concerned with their employment than the bloody abuses some are now talking about.
According to the grand jury report and testimony, there is a long list that amounted to an informal conspiracy of silence: government inspectors who barely showed up or followed up, hospital workers who cleaned up Gosnell’s human castoffs, representatives of a professional association of abortion practitioners, who noted illegalities, refused their seal of approval and moved on.
So of course, the stage is set.
Abortion-rights activists warn of a bleak future if restrictive laws are enacted, with women who can’t afford to pay for or travel to increasingly hard to find clean and legal clinics flocking to back-alley houses of horror, forced to put themselves at the mercy of Gosnell clones.
To many opposed to abortion, that future is already here, with Gosnell shining a light on what they say abortion-rights activists must want, unregulated pits for abortion on demand with no regard to caution, casualties or laws.
Add to it the elements of race and class, introduced by Gosnell, who, according to testimony, maintained separate facilities and levels of treatment for white patients and poorer non-whites, judged more likely to accept mistreatment because, I suppose, they were used to it.
The coverage itself has perhaps become the biggest political story, with everyone, including media outlets themselves, weighing in on whether agenda rather than newsworthiness is the deciding factor when putting together Page One.
We’ve heard the arguments before, with poor women of color used as symbols in a fight that sometimes doesn’t treat them as central to the debate.
In 2010, anti-abortion groups sponsored Atlanta billboards labeling black children, specifically a beautiful photogenic one, “an endangered species” because of numbers showing black women getting a disproportionate number of Georgia abortions. Did the billboards take note of a modern-day eugenics program, as their sponsors insisted, or did they portray black women as complicit in destroying their race or as victims of those who would, as abortion-rights groups argued?
As I wrote in Politics Daily then, “erasing Roe v. Wade would not make women who now choose abortions content to carry a child to term, and it could lead to desperate searches for unsafe alternatives. The insistence on rights too often disappears the moment the child is born and needs — along with the new parent — actual help and hope.
“From the other side, I am troubled by an almost reflexive rejection of the notion that abortion is more than a medical procedure, that it might be a tragedy for all involved. I don’t comprehend the casual assumption that abortion is the only logical choice for a young, single or poor mother. Many women I know are a little too eager to dismiss certain children as unwanted and therefore unworthy.”
The opposing groups who made their arguments then are still at it, and the Gosnell case is the latest perfect opportunity. But what’s going on in a Pennsylvania courtroom is about more than raising a banner. Gosnell is accused of depriving seven children, as well as Mongar, of their lives. Whatever feelings anyone holds about Roe v. Wade, there is a reason why Gosnell was arrested, charged and put on trial. The prosecution will make its case, his defense will make his, and the court will decide. There will be questions and, one hopes, answers about what happened and why it was allowed to go on for so long.
It’s about justice.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3