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Dr. Kermit Gosnell, abortion, and the ravenous power of evil

Mary Hasson

“Snip.”

That’s what I do to loose threads.  Or to a strand of hair that gets in my way.

It’s also what Dr. Kermit Gosnell did to babies, according to news reports.

Snip, dead. 

I don’t know about you, but “snip” seems to me like a pretty mild word to describe actions that warrant murder charges … and that doesn’t sit well with me.

But euphemisms aren’t the only thing that troubles me about the spin on this case – and it’s a horrible case, for sure. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist for over 30 years, was charged in January 2011 with eight counts of first degree murder: one count for the reckless death of an immigrant woman, 19 weeks pregnant, who was unmonitored and over-sedated during an abortion; and seven counts for the brutal killings of second trimester babies who were born alive during abortions. The grand jury report also details Gosnell’s routinely callous and dangerous treatment of his clients; it found evidence too that hundreds of babies older than the 24 week statutory limit were born alive, only to be killed by Gosnell and his employees. 

In the weeks since Gosnell’s arraignment, pro-choice voices have argued around the case, grasping for a narrative that fits their worldview. Some pro-choice blogs paint Gosnell as a greedy, solo opportunist, a criminal “outlier” running a substandard clinic. Making wads of money by “chopping up poor women” who sought late-term abortions, Gosnell deserved prosecution, they say, but solely because he harmed women, “not the fact that he did abortions.”

One bad guy. One bad clinic.  That’s all.

But the “lone ranger” narrative is a hard sell to a public recoiling from the horror of murderous late-term abortions.

So one pro-choice columnist, William Saletan, has challenged pro-choice advocates with this question: “Is it OK to abort a viable fetus?”

Their answers reveal an extremism the abortion lobby has long sought to hide.

Four out of six pro-choice leaders answered with an unqualified “yes.” Viability doesn’t matter. Only unrestricted legal abortion would prevent women from feeling desperate – and desperation created Gosnell’s market niche. Their mantra: “trust women” to make the right decision. The ultimate moral value: autonomy.

One abortion provider, Ann Furedi, the head of Britain’s leading abortion service, admits up front that the baby is human from the moment of conception. She argues cogently that arbitrary age or viability restrictions make no sense.

“[A]re we really so shallow, so fickle, as to let our view on moral worth be determined by appearance? …Even if at five weeks we can only see an embryonic pole, we know that it is human. The heart that can be seen beating on an ultrasound scan at six weeks is as much a human heart as the one that beats five months later….from the time of conception, as soon as embryonic cells begin to divide, an entity with the potential to become a person is created…unless its development is interrupted or fails, it will be born as a child….is there anything qualitatively different about a fetus at, say, 28 weeks that gives it a morally different status to a fetus at 18 weeks or even eight weeks?”

It’s a startling admission, but ice-cold in its conclusion: Though human, the baby is not a “person” and not entitled to any protections. In Furedi’s absolutist view, any solution a woman chooses – even death for a near-full-term baby – is a “moral” solution.

For now, pro-choicers have rallied around the cause of “easy access” to early abortion and emergency contraception as the way to avoid more cases in the Gosnell mold of late-term brutality.

It’s an untenable solution, given the humanity of the unborn child.

But it’s also a solution doomed to fail on its own terms: Evil, given a foothold, only advances, never retreats.

And perhaps that’s one good that might emerge from Gosnell’s killings: a renewed sense, in our own hearts and souls, of the ravenous power of evil.

If we dismiss Gosnell as an aberration, one bad apple in a barrel of good abortionists, how do we explain the cascade of ordinary people tumbling out of this story who looked away when they saw his atrocities? Who stood next to him, helping, as he “snipped” babies’ spines? Or worse, followed his lead and committed the same despicable acts themselves?

But if we understand the mayhem in Kermit Gosnell’s clinic as a case study in the power of evil unleashed, we can make sense out of his own moral degeneration – the progressive cruelty towards women seeking abortions, the abortions on bigger, older babies, and the uninhibited killing of live-born infants as “standard procedure.” 

In Philadelphia, evil arrived when Gosnell’s abortion clinic first opened for business, years before the second trimester killings began. As each baby arrived, nestled in its mother’s womb, and left, dead – bagged as medical waste, Gosnell’s heart hardened. Under legal cover, his conscience died a slow death too.  In fact, at his arraignment, he professed bewilderment that he was being charged in the babies’ deaths.

It’s not surprising, in one sense. A heart that embraces killing innocent human beings up to 24 weeks won’t flinch at killing at 25 weeks. And the flimsy legislative partition of viability has little hope of containing the evil unloosed by the doctor’s lethal, but legal, first trimester work. 

Like poison gas, evil seeps under arbitrary barriers, gradually sickening those who remain in its presence, numbing their hearts and sedating their consciences. It corrupts the souls of those who tarry long in its presence – even ordinary people who perhaps mean well initially.

And that’s exactly what happened in this case. Gosnell’s employees watched, accepted and embraced the evil – a marriage finally consummated as scissors pierced soft newborn skin. The grand jury report noted that, “Over the years, there were hundreds of ‘snippings’…all the employees of the Women’s Medical Society knew. Everyone there acted as if it wasn’t murder at all.”

And what about us? We read numbers (24, 28 weeks), scientific terms (viable fetus), and euphemisms for killing (“snipping”).  We get used to them. They lessen our urgency and blunt our response to evil.  A few days pass, the story fades, and unemployment and tight budgets move to the fore.

I’m not one who favors gruesome pictures of aborted babies as a tool for public debate or evangelism – their indiscriminate use often causes more harm than good and lacks compassion towards women who’ve had abortions. But those of us who pray, work, and sacrifice for the sake of the unborn and their mothers sometimes need a visual reminder of what’s at stake.

Consider taking a look at the grand jury report in Dr. Gosnell’s case, downloadable here. It’s over 200 pages – but words can’t express what happened there.  Spend two minutes with the photos, however, and you’ll forget numbers and remember faces. And you’ll know why we’re fighting this battle.

And “snipping” will forever have a whole new meaning.

Topics: Abortion , Current Events

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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