14 April 2013

How did something like Gosnell’s clinic happen?

There is, as we speak, a flurry in the new media surrounding the trial of Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who is standing trial for the gruesome murders of at least seven infants (after they were born) and criminal negligence leading to the death of at least one mother. The case is so spectacularly horrific that one is left to marvel (as did Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic and David Weigel at Slate) at why the big three cable news companies haven’t been covering the Gosnell’s trial voraciously, but an article at the Daily Beast seems to have a decently objective take on the matter, with several models suggested of why the story hasn’t received broader coverage recently.

Josh Dzieza points out that, for one thing (quoting David Weigel), journalists do tend to have a socially-liberal bent to their reporting, and horror stories relating to an abortionist are not as likely to elicit their attention as other comparable stories. Dzieza also claims that the story is not immediately political in the way that the Trayvon Martin shooting was… though by this I take it that he means merely that the story is not immediately amenable to exploitation by one side or the other in contemporary American partisan politics. That strikes me as the most charitable reading of his argument, given that there are indeed political ramifications to this story – ramifications that he himself discusses.

What we are seeing are the consequences of deregulating the medical industry and of promoting an anti-culture of death in one of the professions where that anti-culture can do the greatest damage. All but one of the rooms in Gosnell’s clinic were by all accounts utterly filthy and squalid – blood was everywhere, and they routinely stank of urine. (The one clean room was reserved by Gosnell for his white patients; all patients of colour were relegated to the other rooms.) A flea-infested cat had free run of the facility. Patients were routinely drugged, often by Gosnell’s unqualified and untrained staffers (one of whom was a fifteen-year-old high-school sophomore). Aborted foeti were everywhere to be found – including a jar full of severed feet. One patient, a Bhutanese immigrant named Karnamaya Mongar, died after being given an unsafe sedative which was used because Gosnell could get it at a discounted price. No one could resuscitate this poor woman because the defibrillator was broken. And why was all of this allowed to continue in plain view?

The grand jury report cited a change in administration as one of the reasons. Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat, was replaced as Pennsylvania governor by the pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge – who basically adopted policies on the same ‘principles’ we can consistently expect from Republicans in every other field of the economy: all regulation is bad regulation. The Pennsylvania Department of Health, which had already found Gosnell’s clinic to be in violation of a number of basic safety and health codes, simply stopped inspecting once Ridge came to office. The reason? It would be ‘putting a barrier up’ to women seeking abortions. Resulting complaints – including complaints about injuries, about the spread of venereal disease due to unsanitary practices and equipment, and about the death of Ms Mongar – went ignored by the Ridge administration and those following it. The grand jury report concludes:

Bureaucratic inertia is not exactly news. We understand that. But we think this was something more. We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.

And what has been the reaction by the abortion lobby, to the poor or non-existent regulation of a private clinic run by a bigoted and murderous doctor and his unqualified staff? Tellingly, it is the same as the reaction by the Tea Party to the poor or non-existent regulation of unscrupulous and avaricious investment banks, and the same as the reaction by the NRA to the poor or non-existent regulation of high-powered assault guns which seem to fall into the hands of mass murderers. Any whiff of regulation will send these interest groups and their defenders into a delirious Panglossian frenzy saying how futile such regulation would be. And the inevitable Wayne LaPierre-style wingnuttery in this story is brought by none other than Ilyse Hogue, the head of NARAL, on record as saying this case was ‘exactly what happens when you place undue restrictions and you try to shame women to keep them from exercising their constitutional right to safe and legal abortions’.

Wait – huh?

Please enlighten me, Ms Hogue, precisely what ‘undue restrictions’ were in place in Pennsylvania when this ghoulish nightmare was taking place?

Given the substance of the grand jury report, which notes scathingly that even nail salons in Pennsylvania are subject to more stringent client safety standards, it strikes me that claiming Gosnell’s clinic to be the product of overly-onerous requirements on medical facilities and abortion providers is one of the single most asinine and ideologically-blinkered things one can possibly say about it. It is the precise analogical equivalent of the NRA claiming that the answer to school shootings is more guns and less regulation (because, y’know, all regulation means that the government is out to take away your right to self-defence, and will result in only criminals having guns), or the followers of Rick Santelli claiming that the 2007 financial crisis was the government’s fault for over-regulating investment banks and (supposedly) forcing them to make risky loans to irresponsible ‘losers’.

For a supposedly ‘left-leaning’ organisation such as NARAL to make such a statement is a travesty. If they truly did care about the young women who went into Gosnell’s clinic, particularly those women of colour who were placed at greatest risk, they would not be agitating for ‘more access’ to services which might seriously endanger their lives, but for safer services – even if that meant some clinics would have to be shut down (and good riddance if they are anything like Gosnell’s!). It rather goes without saying that if they cared at all about the children-to-be, of course, they wouldn’t be NARAL. More to the point, though, such a reaction simply shows that they are not willing to face up to the ramifications of a deregulated medical system where this neoliberal, pro-choice logic dictates every aspect of service provision. Gosnell was allowed to continue murdering infants and leaving their mothers to die precisely because regulators under a pro-choice Republican administration were directed not to touch abortion providers. In other words, laissez-faire was the rule of the day under Ridge, and this is the direct result.

It’s time for us on the left to start showing some consistency on this issue. I am only appalled and saddened that it took a mass-murderer like Gosnell to start this conversation, and only after pro-life bloggers made the determination to bring the trial to nation-wide attention.


  1. Great post. Whenever the American Left’s sexual/reproductive views coincide with the Right’s laissez-faire business positions, you should expect some serious trouble. The Gosnell case is obviously the most horrendous example of this, but I also think the pornographic film industry is another area where there are reports about some truly disgusting abuses occurring but they are usually drowned out by the porn business lobby and some corners of the sexual liberation world who try to downplay or bury the stories.

    I also wonder how the often smug libertarians deal with stories like this. Should we have just waited for Gosnell to be driven out of the market by morally superior competitors? That was unlikely, as the grand jury report indicates that Gosnell’s dangerous cost-cutting procedures helped keep his business lucrative.

  2. Thanks, John!

    I'm actually not very well-educated about the porn industry, but is this the sort of thing you're talking about? If so, I completely agree with your position - it is pretty disgusting. And it's quite telling that the reps of the porn company told the organiser of this event that he was being a 'prude' when he objected to the content. (I should note that to say I don't always agree with Brent Bozell would be a highly litotic gloss, but here I think he's pretty much right on the money.)

    Also, in the absence of regulation, I highly doubt that Gosnell could have been driven out of the market - apparently, he was making money hand over fist (to the tune of $1.8 million per year) off of the young women he victimised and the infants he butchered.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Hi Matthew,

    That is a good article and a good example of what I am thinking about. My position on porn and the Left was developed after reading the Chris Hedges book "Empire of Illusion." Hedges had an interesting chapter on the adult entertainment industry which can be read at truthdig.com (although I should warn that it is a rather frank article and discusses some rather disturbing practices):


    It will be interesting to see if the business aspect of Gosnell's clinic will be discussed much in the media and if this case will produce tougher regulations on abortion clinics. There will likely be hard lobbying against tougher oversight, though.