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Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell's Trial Matters To You

Ashley Yang |
April 26, 2013 | 1:12 p.m. PDT


Immediately before the Boston Marathon bombing took over the airwaves, the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, accused of multiple counts of feticide and infanticide, occupied the Twitterverse, the pages of the Washington Post, even Anderson Cooper’s segment on CNN.

Gosnell's trial has uncovered the fundamental prejudices that guide the American value system. (ctrouper, Creative Commons)
Gosnell's trial has uncovered the fundamental prejudices that guide the American value system. (ctrouper, Creative Commons)

Although Gosnell’s story represents one of the most horrifying, most graphic violations of physician ethics and medical norms of abortion care on record, it only recently emerged as a matter of national media attention and was almost immediately superseded by another national tragedy. Why was this story not splashed across every media channel when it initially broke, nearly two months ago? 

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, an unlicensed physician and proprietor of a West Philadelphia abortion clinic called the Women’s Medical Society, is found to have routinely performed illegal late-term abortions (past 24 weeks gestation) by inducing labor and making surgical incisions at the base of fetal skulls, effectively separating the brain from the body and killing the newborn. Gosnell called this procedure “ensuring fetal demise.”  

When public health officials raided his clinic on Feb. 18, 2010, they discovered unsanitary and unsterile conditions, a complete lack of functioning life-saving equipment, fetal remains haphazardly stored throughout the premises and semi-conscious women moaning, lying on dirty recliners covered with blood-stained blankets. Patients would be given labor-inducing drugs before Gosnell even arrived, and an employee would lead them to give birth into the toilet if they delivered before the doctor came. Untrained employees, including a high school student, regularly dispensed anesthesia.

One woman had to undergo a hysterectomy after Gosnell botched a procedure. Another, a 41-year old Nepali refugee named Karnamaya Mongar, stopped breathing after repeatedly receiving unmonitored injections of Demerol, a powerful sedative. Gosnell could not revive her, because all of the necessary equipment was broken and the clinic had no emergency medications on hand. When the paramedics were finally called, the staff staged the body to make it appear like a routine, safe abortion was taking place. 

The conservative response to these atrocities has been standard and predictable: anti-choice Tweeters and websites, such as Mr. Conservative have equated Gosnell’s medical practice with Planned Parenthood, demonizing a safe, legitimate women’s healthcare provider by vilifying it as a site of mass murder as evil as the Third Reich. Although their demands for greater media coverage of the Gosnell case have contributed to needed public awareness of flagrant human rights abuses, those efforts are transparently motivated by the advancement of anti-choice propaganda that aims to manipulate an atrocity for political gain and strike fear into the hearts of the public about the presence of abortion in American society. But more importantly, the unacceptable dearth of attention Gosnell has received reveals the harrowing effects of racism, bureaucratic inertia and polarization of the abortion debate.

Abortion is a political and social hot potato. Among general society, even pro-choice advocates, it has become a taboo, a word that is not spoken in polite company because of its morally contested and emotionally charged nature and its intimate relationship to babies and death. It is this squeamish, acutely discomfortable paradigm on abortion, and not just bureaucratic neglect, that caused two state regulatory agencies, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Board of Medicine, to disregard and dismiss the persistent stream of complaints and documented violations that were practically dropped on their doorsteps. Reports of personal injury, venereal diseases, at least two deaths and even a report that wholly detailed the outrageous conditions of the clinic were all written off. This politicization of women’s healthcare enabled the victimization of more and more women by Gosnell’s operation.  

That low-income women, women of color, immigrant women and women otherwise desperate for an inexpensive, later-term abortion comprised nearly all of Gosnell’s patient pool further exposes another form of victimization, this time by the institutionalized marginalization of certain demographics in access to healthcare as well as the growing unavailability of abortion services. Gosnell’s patients visited his clinic because they could not obtain abortions elsewhere. The increasing shortage of abortion clinics and shrinking insurance coverage for abortion due to restrictive legislation mean that women must travel long distances and pay out-of-pocket to get an abortion. Combined with the fact that most abortions in the US are obtained by poor and minority women, abortion seekers who are not white and not middle-class end up delaying the procedure because they need to raise money or cannot immediately take time off from work. Some women end up waiting until they are near or past the legal deadline, at which time they are forced to seek out providers like Gosnell because no other doctor will perform the abortion. Therefore, a disproportionate number of women who are already disadvantaged are put in a position under the status quo to be preyed upon by unscrupulous doctors, who do not treat them with respect or make their health a priority. 

The trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell should matter to you, man or woman, proponent or opponent of abortion, because it has uncovered the fundamental prejudices that whisper into the ears of American society and guide our value system. The abuses endured by Gosnell’s patients and his collection of fetal remains betray our society as one that subordinates the life and well-being of those marginalized and nameless in order to preserve a contrived air of comfort and political neutrality, one that excludes the human rights abuses suffered by low-income minorities from public discussion. The absence of sustained media coverage that Dr. Kermit Gosnell justly deserved was not due to what happened—it was the subject and the people involved that gave all who had the means to bring public attention to this case reason to discount its significance. 


Reach Contributor Ashley Yang here.



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