Over the past three weeks, the horrific information first revealed in a 2011 grand-jury report made its way (partway at least) into the public conversation through the murder trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. The depravity of which human beings are capable is no revelation in the second decade of the 21st century, but even to the modern mind, familiar as it is with the near-daily depredations of suicide bombers and nuclear terrorist-states, the jamming of scissors into the necks of babies and the “snipping” of their spinal cords somehow breaches a last ruined wall of civilization.
Maybe it’s that delicate word “snipping.” Does it really capture the act of assassination — do we want to know? Is a near-term baby’s spine as fragile as a wisteria tendril? Better to focus one’s thoughts away from such expressions; surely life is more durable and an assault upon it more difficult to execute than that?
Here is what magnifies this particular barbarism. It purports to be the opposite of what it is. Atrocities in a state of war do not purport to be rescue missions. Mentally disturbed people charging down school hallways do not proclaim themselves to be census takers. But Kermit Gosnell and the motley array of teenagers, nurses down on their luck, and neighborhood volunteers claim to be medical personnel. They open their “clinics” with the goal of filling them with the dismembered bodies of the unborn from their emptied mothers. They are (pick the name) “for women,” engaged in “reproductive services,” champions of “planned parenthood.” But so much of their work is to eviscerate an aspect of womanhood, to maul reproduction, to destroy parenthood.
Once medical personnel took an oath — ancient and stoic, not creedal or religious — against crimes like this. Hippocrates understood that the power to heal was a close cousin to the power to kill. Today, ethics are an optional accessory for many.
Is not all well, now that Gosnell and his assistants are being prosecuted? Isn’t he an exception rather than the rule, merely a substandard “provider”? The argument matters, legally. For whatever reason, Dr. Gosnell failed to avoid the “dreaded complication,” the survival of near- or post-viable babies slated for abortion. Under state law Gosnell had an affirmative duty to provide medical care to an infant born alive at any stage of gestation. Slain inside the womb, the baby has no guarantee of protection. He also, manifestly, failed the women in his care. He treated their lives with no more regard than the fetal remains he hoarded under his roof.
It took more than a misjudgment of gestational age or lack of skill with an amniotic needle, however, to produce the nightmare at 3801 Lancaster Ave. The inversion of the medical profession began at the national level four decades ago when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that our Constitution stands in the way of viewing mother and baby as dual patients. The inversion grew with each passing year, where effort after effort to restore a public policy of maternal and fetal care was frustrated by abortion-industry litigation. And then, when incremental gains were made and routine legislation such as clinic inspections was upheld, there came the everyday monster of bureaucratic neglect.
One visit to Gosnell’s clinic should have been enough to secure its closure. Instead, as the grand-jury report laid out, the administration of Republican governor Tom Ridge, reversing the policy of the late Democrat Bob Casey, ended abortion-clinic inspections, viewing them, as a state health official at the time has testified, as “putting up a barrier to women” seeking abortions. Instead, 17 years and dozens of corpses later, the barrier around the Gosnell clinic was yellow crime-scene tape.
Turning away from horrifying scenes can be natural. Just ask viewers of Louisville’s NCAA regional final. At a social level, turning away can take the form of a cumulative numbness. Drawing no specific analogy (missing the uniqueness of historical events is itself a form of numbness), one recalls Hannah Arendt’s insight that “once ideologies’ claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which . . . everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted.” Last year, turning away from the disaster of 40 years of legal abortion and inviting more, a national political party renewed its pledge to “oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine” the abortion right.
Kermit Gosnell is the decaying nucleus of a logical system. He had, and has, catalysts in both parties and at all levels of government. His crimes and punishment will mean little if they do not give birth to a national soul-searching.
— Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.