While reproductive healthcare is embraced as a religious issue on the right and ignored by too many men on the left, actual women—particularly poor ones—get hurt in the shuffle.
The story of Kermit Gosnell has been unfolding in Philadelphia since 2010—yet some national writers who missed the story are suddenly, only now, paying attention. Recently, in response to a Twitter shame campaign ignited by a USA Today op-ed calling for the story to be on the front page, the writers who missed it (or perhaps more accurately, dismissed it) have snapped to attention. Unfortunately, rather than admitting their own biases and blind spots, they blamed a bogus conspiracy theory for keeping them in the dark.
Gosnell, of course, is the 72-year-old doctor currently on trial in Philadelphia, charged with four counts of murder in the deaths of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar and three infants. He is also charged with performing illegal late-term abortions (in Pennsylvania, the law prohibits abortions after 24 weeks), illegal prescribing of drugs and other charges. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Gosnell’s clinic was discovered by way of the alleged illegal drug distribution; it was the Drug Enforcement Agency that raided his West Philadelphia clinic in February 2010. After the raid, a grand jury spent the rest of the year interviewing 58 witnesses and published its findings in a January 2011 report. (You can read the whole report online at ph.ly/GosnellReport.)
Philadelphia Weekly published the first of many articles exploring the Gosnell case in February 2011. Our coverage throughout 2011 and 2012 focused on Pennsylvania legislators who exploited the case in order to pass one of the strictest new regulations on abortion clinics in the country, which, as it was designed to do, shut some clinics down.
Legislators claimed the new regulations were drafted in response to the Gosnell case with women’s safety in mind. “This is about patient safety and preventing future cases of murder and infanticide within abortion clinics,” said state Rep. Matt Baker (R-Bradford/Tioga counties). Here’s the reality: Bills like the one Pennsylvania passed—which mandates clinics must undergo prohibitively expensive architectural upgrades that have nothing to do with patient safety—have been pushed nationwide by Americans United for Life, a powerful pro-life lobbying group dedicated to chiseling away poor women’s access to abortion clinics through state-level legislation.
Before Act 122, which requires clinics offering abortions to be licensed as ambulatory surgical facilities, was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania had 19 freestanding abortion clinics offering surgical abortion services. Now there are 13, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Many clinics simply could not afford the costly architectural changes as required under the new standard.
Proponents of the new regulations—who notably include only religious organizations and no medical associations—say the law better protects patients from the Gosnells of the world. History, however, shows the opposite. Before Roe v. Wade ruled that states could not outlaw abortion altogether, women seeking abortions used to routinely endure the types of violence Gosnell allegedly inflicted on his victims—a fact documented by hospital records at the time.
Forty years after Roe, abortion is still legal, but that legality does not guarantee access—specifically, for poor and working women. To wit: According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s 2010 report, 65 private physicians in Pennsylvania perform abortions. Anti-abortion activists focused on shutting down clinics aren’t actually stopping abortion; they’re just stopping poor and working women from accessing safe abortion.
And that’s when those women go to the Gosnells of the world.
THE BOGUS “MEDIA BIAS” THEORY
The recent surge of national attention to the Gosnell case comes not from pundits discovering any sudden new personal interest in reproductive healthcare—access to which is profoundly stratified by class and race—but in response to charges of a cover-up by a liberal media.
“This story—which if nothing else suggests that live births do, in fact, happen during late-term abortions—upsets a particular narrative about the reality of certain types of abortion, and that reality isn’t something some pro-choice absolutists want to discuss,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, after admitting he had not heard of the Gosnell case until the USA Today piece.
Give or take a few profound basic errors—Gosnell’s alleged crimes and grotesque methods are unheard of in medical literature and in no way reflect any type of regulated abortion, which an expert could have explained and which is clear in the grand jury report—Goldberg’s assertion that the so-called pro-abortion rights liberal media chose to hide the story is a premise endorsed by, mostly, the journalists who missed the story.
It’s also demonstrably false. In fact, the opposite is true: Outside of Philadelphia and Harrisburg, most of the early coverage of Gosnell came from overtly pro-choice writers and outlets such as Amanda Marcotte and Slate, Katha Pollitt at The Nation and RH Reality Check. In other words, the indie media that are actually pro-abortion-rights liberals covered the case even more than the mainstream corporate media that get labeled that way.
The case was also covered across the spectrum of mainstream big media, such as The New York Times. The Associated Press has been filling daily reports from inside the courtroom. I would be more convinced of a big, bad monolithic liberal media monster if the story of an alleged drug trafficker who allegedly got away with maiming and murdering victims for years due to a complex web of government oversight failures hadn’t been dismissed as a “women’s issue” by the very writers who are now wondering why they missed—or, more accurately, dismissed—the big story.
To wit: Slate politics writer Dave Weigel, after wondering why no one told him the story was important, admits that he read about Kermit Gosnell back in 2011, but he simply “didn’t see a political story to chase.”
So which is a more likely explanation for mainstream national journalists who missed the Gosnell story until now: that a vast media conspiracy exists to condone an alleged murderer who kept severed fetal feet in jars for fun, or that mainstream national journalists function in an echo chamber, collectively obsessing over a single sensational story rather than responsibly covering all the topics that need covering?
Notably, many of the journalists who have emerged from said echo chamber wondering what happened are white males. Perhaps if reproductive healthcare wasn’t embraced as a religious issue on the right and dismissed as a “women’s issue” on the left, it would have received more national coverage. Though abortion as a buzzword is considered a red-state-vs.-blue-state hot-button issue and, in fact, was considered one of the most important issues of the 2012 presidential campaign, what the Gosnell media case reveals is that abortion in reality—specifically, the reality of what poor women’s bodies must endure when safe access is not ensured—is neither a red nor blue issue. It’s pink.
Either way, the newfound interest in the case—whether disingenuous or not—comes way too late for Pennsylvania women.
A timeline of events in the case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell.
PW's Summer Guide 2014