Kermit Gosnell and the Horrors of Abortion

Both liberals and conservatives can agree that the story of Kermit Gosnell is horrifying.

Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online today to talk about the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who is charged with killing fetuses during late-term abortions. (The case went to the jury yesterday.) What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Margaret: Ramesh, I'm sensitive about your side criticizing mine for not jumping on the Kermit Gosnell case. By the time conservative critics were doing their criticizing, it had been covered (although I'm ashamed to say not by me; I wish I'd known what was going on but I didn't). And conservatives were covering it in the meta sense -- writing about the coverage. That's because there is no fight from the other side. None. How could anyone support what Gosnell is accused of doing, never mind the conditions of filth and neglect, or the inhumanity to both mother and child?

Ramesh: I remember writing an editorial for National Review on Gosnell in January 2011 -- and it was about the case, not the coverage. But I do think the press has been slow to tackle this case. It's not that reporters are instinctively on Gosnell's side; they're not. It's that major-media reporters are more pro-choice than the national average, and a lot of pro-choicers are uncomfortable with this story because it raises the question of whether we've gone too far with abortion rights. So it's easy not to look at the story -- especially since looking away from horror is such a natural reaction.

Margaret: Let me answer the question you raise: Yes, we have gone too far. Since we're talking about what we wrote, during last year's Democratic convention I wrote about how terrible it was that Democrats took out of their platform that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." As I read the Gosnell case coverage, I've learned that late-term abortions aren't as rare as I thought. Gosnell is charged with repeatedly and openly killing babies born alive. That is something doctors who perform abortions sometimes have to contemplate. Just yesterday, a pro-life group released a video of a doctor in a Washington clinic explaining what would happen if the baby were accidentally born alive. He wasn't much different from Gosnell.

Ramesh: And of course this was an issue in Illinois when President Barack Obama was a state senator. He voted against legislation to clarify that infants who survive abortions should be protected, because he worried that it was inconsistent with abortion rights. It's a vote his defenders have been trying to explain away ever since.

Margaret: This is where a constitutional law professor can go wrong, way wrong, and it's something Obama must regret. I hope he does. When I look at the law and what's happening, I see Roe v. Wade on a collision course with our own eyes. The trimester construct is set akilter anytime you go into a neonatal unit. Babies live at 20 weeks. Someone -- the court, the states -- has to deal with the viability question. Roe was meant to prohibit abortions after viability and to protect a woman's primacy to decide before that. You might not agree with that, Ramesh, but there was a balancing of rights -- those of the mother and the fetus. That line has changed, and something should be done to address that.

The other huge problem is how wide the "health of mother" exception is. It can be anything -- age, emotional health, financial condition. The loopholes are so large a nine-month pregnant woman could go through them. And there's almost no difference between killing a baby accidentally born alive in a late-term abortion, as Gosnell stands accused of, and killing the same baby in the womb, as more skilled doctors can do.

Ramesh: Right -- and the fear of some pro-choicers is that it's a slippery slope. If you admit that there's no real difference between collapsing the skull of a baby after eight months of pregnancy outside the womb or inside the womb, then are you setting yourself up to say that there's no real difference between doing those things and performing an abortion at six months? And they don't like where that logic leads. And you're right, Margaret, about the health "exception": That's why late-term abortions, although they're illegal almost everywhere, are almost never prosecuted anywhere. You can always fit a case into the exception.

Margaret: The grand jury report calls out a couple people who didn't do their jobs, who could have stopped Gosnell years ago but just didn't. Bureaucratic indifference? Too much to do? The report mentions Janice Staloski of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, who "let Gosnell slide on the violations that were already evident" when she visited in 1992. The simple filth of the place, with blood on the recliners, feral cats running around, the stench of urine, the bags full of "medical waste" that didn't get picked up because Gosnell never paid his bills -- it was all there to see. Yet Staloski was promoted, and her successor didn't do anything, either. When the department was asked about this, its chief counsel, Christine Dutton, defended the department, saying "People die." People get fired, too. I hope she did. I'm going to check. (Just did: She was.)

Ramesh: That was an amazing grand-jury report -- horrifying and well-written. One factor the report mentioned: A change of governors in 1995 had resulted in a new attitude toward monitoring abortion clinics. And it wasn't the typical partisan split: You had a pro-choice Republican, Tom Ridge, replacing a pro-life Democrat, Bob Casey. The new administration didn't want to bother the clinics too much, and that was the end of serious oversight. Also worth mentioning here: the National Abortion Federation, which looked into his clinic in 2009 and rejected a membership application from Gosnell but did not report him to the authorities.

Margaret: Indifference or politics, it's shocking when good people do bad things. At least I'm still surprised by it. I don't expect such things from people in state health departments or from governors. I guess I do expect a mindless defensive crouch from pro-choice side, which reacts to the mindless extremism of the pro-life side, which can find justification for killing doctors who perform abortions. I cringe whenever I read the testimony of a Planned Parenthood lobbyist in Florida who said that in cases of a failed abortion, the decision to kill the newborn should be left to the "patient and the health-care provider." (After the fallout from this testimony, Planned Parenthood representatives reversed this position.) This was not a mistake. Instead it was a Kinsley gaffe: someone accidentally saying what he really believes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the authors on this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at
    Margaret Carlson at

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