Politics & Policy

Understanding Gosnell

What’s life got to do with it?

‘They were filled with expectation . . . the expectation that there was Something More than the atrocious evil that had befallen them . . . Something More than the darkness . . . Something More than despair.”

So said Father Peter John Cameron, a Dominican priest and editor of Magnificat, a daily devotional, to the families of Newtown, Conn., gathered at St. Rose of Lima Church the Sunday after the massacre there. It was the third Sunday of Advent, a time of expectation, a time children love — and here parents were, preparing to bury their children. And here were children in possession of some of the worst images, the kind that have crippled men at war.

The Gospel that day recalled the crowds gathered to see John the Baptist, a prophet of “exceptional humanity,” as Father Cameron put it. He dared to speak of expectation and even joy to this crowd at Newtown that had already demonstrated tremendous courage, a fruit of real faith. In their witness to love in the face of such darkness, he said, they were sharing a certainty with the world; they were sharing a great, selfless gift.

Love was a subject that came up on the floor of the House of Representatives last week. The headlines were about guns and immigration and sequestration, but for one hour on the House floor, members talked about the darkness emanating from Philadelphia. Led by Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey, several members spoke of the images being testified to in the case of Kermit Gosnell. Sadly, all the congressmen who spoke are Republicans — this needn’t and can’t afford to be a partisan exercise.

For nearly six weeks now, Gosnell has been on trial for evil done in a clinic protected by words like “family planning” and “women’s health.” The images coming out of the trial — as anyone knows who has been following the case in the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the few news outlets to cover it — are abhorrent. If a baby survived an abortion, Gosnell allegedly would snip the spinal cord  with a pair of scissors to “ensure fetal death.” This is clearly murder. “This baby is big enough to walk around with me or walk me to the bus stop,” a young woman who assisted Gosnell in the clinic recalled him joking about one of the babies he killed after delivery.

Representative Smith was direct as he opened the hour on Capitol Hill, time in which he hoped he and his colleagues could do what the national news media hadn’t been doing: tell the story. “Murdering newborns in the abortion clinic, it seems to me, is indistinguishable from any other child predator wielding a knife or a gun. Why isn’t that child seen as a patient in need of medical care, warmth, nutrition, and — dare I say — love?”

But we can’t see it that way, can we? Not when we live in a culture where it is mainstream and legal and even, it seems at times, laudable for a doctor to do harm. A doctor can do harm to a patient — the confused ethics of our time allow — if it is the choice of a woman, who is presented as if she were an independent actor — independent of the child in her womb, independent of the father of that child, independent of family and friends and a community and world that will never meet that child and hope for her prospects. This is a miserable view of motherhood — and the woman is a mother, however the pregnancy ends. It is one that has poisoned us, leaving women feeling as if, professionally or personally, abortion is expected, and leaving men free to walk away. Freedom and free will are at the heart of our existence; it is our obligation to protect and exercise them. But true freedom is twisted into something else in a culture where all too often women feel as if they have no choice. In that culture, freedom is misunderstood as an opt-out from a decision previously made, with an innocent person’s life as a casualty and, all too often, with a mother’s heart and soul left unhealed.

Remembering the babies — and at least one woman — who have died at Gosnell’s hands, Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, one of the congressmen who spoke along with Smith, said: “The loss of these lives should scar the conscience of civilized people everywhere.” Reflecting on the lack of media coverage and the lack of public outrage, he asked: “Has our national conscience been irreversibly seared by the deaths of more than 1.2 million unborn children every year in this country?”

Stutzman is right to ask the question. The Gosnell trial should be an occasion for outrage and shame, an occasion for reflection and action.

When innocent children are gunned down in school, we try to process the realization: This is evil. We tend to know that something very bad happened at Newtown, even if we try to explain it in other terms, and find ways to outlaw it.

Of course, you cannot outlaw evil. But you can feed the conscience. And I’m afraid that right now we might be denying conscience a reality check.

When Newtown was terrorized, the public instinct was toward politics. Our way of processing evil has come to be passing a law that will give us some false sense of assurance that our legislative action can keep evil at bay. In the case of Gosnell, though, we break with that instinct to seek a legislative remedy, even though, were it not for lax regulation, it wouldn’t have taken one woman’s death to expose that filthy deathtrap. It’s almost as if we can’t go there.

But we must. As Representative Andy Harris of Maryland, who is himself a medical doctor, highlighted on the House floor that day, Gosnell’s practice of killing children who survived the abortion is in line with the views of some modern ethicists. “They create an ethical framework completely consistent with abortion policy throughout most of the United States — and that is that a late-term, third-trimester fetus has no rights as a person — and merely extend that logic to the period after birth. That’s all they’re doing. Although it may sound grotesque and shocking, it’s merely an ethical, logical extension of the way we have been treating fetuses since 1973.”

In the relative silence, there is a complacency and indifference that cannot stand. There was a lack of charity that drove women to Gosnell’s clinic, and there was certainly love lacking within the walls of his facility. Children expect love. They cry when they do not receive it. A former employee of Gosnell’s testified that one baby was “screeching” like “a little alien.”

The desensitization that 40 years of legal abortion has wrought must be undone. We must become once again a welcoming people of expectation and hope, loving children, supporting mothers, building up fathers. Even the most dedicated abortion-rights activist, upon reflection, might agree. We have been known to be a people of expectations — about the potential of life, about the heights we can reach. We have relied, in fact, on people of the greatest eternal expectations to serve us and inspire us and keep us honest. Our government increasingly views that as foreign, if not outright wrong, and the media and the culture can’t make connections any more and won’t ask questions. Our complacency, our indifference, must be undone. Gosnell requires an examination of the nation’s conscience.

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA.

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