Unspeakable Things Unspoken

Window of Kermit Gosnell's clinic in Philadelphia



Kermit Gosnell is on trial in Philadelphia for running a clinic, as we put it in January 2011, “where dirty instruments spread venereal disease, cats roamed and defecated freely, and some patients died. The state government conducted essentially no oversight; administrations of both parties wanted to keep abortion as free from governmental intrusion as possible.” The sickening details can be found in the grand-jury report.

Television networks and major newspapers have been slow to cover this case; they are turning to it only now, after having been browbeaten by pro-life critics. The defense some journalists are making for ignoring the story — that conservative media outlets have paid it little attention either — is both false (we have given it plenty of coverage) and rather damning (the Washington Post may not be what it once was, but surely it has a few more resources to deploy than does NR). Another defense, that the story is too disgusting for reporters or the news-consuming public, would have weight if nobody had covered, for example, the Sandusky crimes.

One obvious explanation for the media’s silence is that most reporters favor legal abortion, and this story is uncomfortable for that side of the abortion debate. People who are “pro-choice,” especially, don’t want to think about it. The unconvincing spin from the most devoted supporters of the abortion license is that the Gosnell case shows that abortion law needs to be liberalized further: If Pennsylvania not only refrained from enforcing its late-term abortion law but also took it off the books, none of this would have happened. On this point, we trust the grand jury’s account.

Something else that has gone without much mainstream-media coverage for years is President Obama’s record on related issues. In the Illinois state legislature in 2001, he argued that it would be wrong to protect “pre-viable” infants born alive: Accept that human beings in that stage of development have rights, and the logic of liberal abortion law would come crashing down. Note that this argument is not consistent with the apologias that his defenders devised later: He was not saying, for example, that it was unnecessary to pass a bill protecting these infants because laws already on the books covered them. He was saying that they had no such protection and should receive none.

That position is of a piece with other stands Obama has taken. In 2003, Obama was asked specifically about late-term abortions and said that he “trust[s] women to make these decisions.” In 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that legislatures may prohibit partial-birth abortions, he said, “I strongly disagree.”

The logic behind this set of views, however extreme it may appear to most people, is remorselessly coherent. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the partial-birth abortion case, it cannot make a moral difference whether a child is partway out of the womb or fully within it when it is killed. Obama grasped the additional point in his 2001 remarks: It cannot make a difference whether the child is fully outside the mother’s body, either. And once the law has said that human beings at an early stage of development may be deliberately killed, it is very hard to find a limiting principle: not that some people have been all that interested in trying.

The logic is sound, once the premises are accepted; but it is not attractive. And so you won’t be reading about it in the papers.