Kermit Gosnell: The Alleged Mass-Murderer and the Bored Media

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 12 2013 10:11 AM

Kermit Gosnell: The Alleged Mass-Murderer and the Bored Media

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An anti-abortion protester rallies in front of the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2007, in Washington D,C.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

UPDATE: I've added a link and a reference to the piece Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate in January 2011. There's been some blurring of the lines: People are conflating liberals, many of whom wrote about Gosnell when the case was fresh, and the "MSM," which fancies itself unbiased and in-it-for-the-story, but hasn't piled on to cover this story.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

A week ago, I joined a few reporters for a morning coffee klatsch with Newt Gingrich. One of the scribes asked Gingrich about the GOP's branding when it came to social issues; Gingrich, as is his wont, flipped the question back on the questioner.

"There's a question of which side gets to define 'extremism,'" said Gingrich. "I mean, the Planned Parenthood witness in Florida recently who said, gee, if the baby actually survives the abortion, the baby has no standards. Very few Americans believe in taxpayer providing for abortionists killing babies in the ninth month [of a pregnancy], under any circumstances."

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Gingrich was referring to a viral-ish video from a Florida legislature hearing on proposed new abortion laws. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus had also attempted to goad the media into covering that; the starting point for an abortion discussion should be the horrors of the process, not the potential limitations on that process.

I bring this up because a week later—yesterday—Kirsten Powers wrote a column shaming the media for not covering the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist who is accused of commiting hundreds of gruesome late-term murders.

When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, there was non-stop media hysteria. The venerable NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams intoned, "A firestorm of outrage from women after a crude tirade from Rush Limbaugh," as he teased a segment on the brouhaha. Yet, accusations of babies having their heads severed — a major human rights story if there ever was one — doesn't make the cut.

Republicans weren't talking about it either; they were talking about that Planned Parenthood video, because taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood is an active political issue. But Powers' column kicked off a Twitter-driven campaign to shame journalists into covering the Gosnell trial. Mollie Hemingway, a Christianity Today columnist, burned up the Twittersphere asking journalists like the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff and The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta why they hadn't covered Gosnell. Franke-Ruta actually had, but Hemingway argued that her one item wasn't nearly enough. She got more results; before midnight, BuzzFeed published a quick list of "four documents to understand the Kermit Gosnell trial." (UPDATE: This wasn't Buzzfeed's first item about the case. It ran a recap of the "House of Horrors" trial earlier.)

Let's just state the obvious: National political reporters are, by and large, socially liberal. We are more likely to know a gay couple than to know someone who owns an "assault weapon." We are, generally, pro-choice. Twice, in D.C., I've caused a friend to literally leave a conversation and freeze me out for a day or so because I suggested that the Stupak Amendment and the Hyde Amendment made sense. There is a bubble. Horror stories of abortionists are less likely to permeate that bubble than, say, a story about a right-wing pundit attacking an abortionist who then claims to have gotten death threats.

Slate is an exception to this rule. Two years and two months ago, my colleagues Will Saletan and Amanda Marcotte—who've covered abortion issues for years, and in Will's case earned real ire from some liberal readers—wrote about the grand jury report that detailed Gosnell's possible crimes. I read Will's piece at the time but didn't see a political story to chase. Only when Hemingway started on that tear of tweets did I read the report, and I'm glad she forced the issue, because the report is a catalogue of unspeakable horrors. This is just from the introduction.

Furniture and blankets were stained with blood. Instruments were not properly sterilized. Disposable medical supplies were not disposed of; they were reused, over and over again. Medical equipment – such as the defibrillator, the EKG, the pulse oximeter, the blood pressure cuff – was generally broken; even when it worked, it wasn’t used. The emergency exit was padlocked shut. And scattered throughout, in cabinets, in the basement, in a freezer, in jars and bags and plastic jugs, were fetal remains. It was a baby charnel house.

That's the G-rated version. One woman, according to investigators, was "left lying in place for hours after Gosnell tore her cervix and colon while trying, unsuccessfully, to extract the fetus." Another woman was sent home when she "still had fetal parts inside her." Another woman died after untrained and unlicenced aides gave her "unmonitored, unrecorded intravenous injections of Demerol." Gosnell trained those aides to commit fraud, distorting ultrasounds to make the late-term pregnancies look less far advanced. Viable babies—hundreds of them, allegedly—were decapitated with scissors.

So the question, raised by pro-lifers, is this: Explain to us why Gosnell isn't a national story. Somebody else can try. I can't explain it. It's never made sense to me, how a local crime story becomes a national story. Two words: "Poop cruise." CNN ran hours of coverage and grainy video of a stranded Carnival cruise ship, a situation that inconvenienced many and killed none. How does a missing college student or an angry man in a TSA line become part of Our National Conversation? I don't know. I do know that a reporter in the bubble is less likely to be compelled by the news of an arrested abortionist.

But which reporters need to cover the Gosnell story? Last night, keying off Hemingway, National Review's Jim Geraghty tweeted a series of national scandals that started as local news. "Jeffrey Dahmer? Local crime story," he said. "Trayvon Martin? Local crime story."

I flew down to Florida last year to cover the Trayvon Martin story; I don't think the comparison is apt. Martin was shot on February 26, 2012. George Zimmerman was questioned by police, but not charged. That was what pulled in the national media, what spurred the resignation of the local police chief, and what turned the story into a discussion of "stand your ground" laws. Once Zimmerman was charged, the press largely looked elsewhere for stories.

Gosnell was charged, and magazines like Slate wrote about the charges at the time. He's accused of performing illegal abortions. In Pennsylvania, an abortion after the 24th week of pregnancy is only legal if a physician proves it was necessary to "preserve life of mother or prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of bodily function." Gosnell didn't do that.

But there is a political scandal here. Grand jury investigators were baffled: How did Gosnell's clinic, an infamous place in the tri-state area, go un-inspected for so long? Basically, the regulators blew it. "Even though the first DOH Certificate of Approval for Gosnell’s clinic expired on December 20, 1980," write the investigators, "the next documented site review was not conducted until August 1989." After a 1992 visit, regulators reported that the clinic was wheelchair-accessible, even though it's "multi-leveled and has no elevator." After 1993, the state didn't follow up complaints about the clinic.

If you're pro-choice, say, and you worry that the Gosnell story is being promoted only to weaken your cause, you really should read that grand jury report. "DOH could and should have closed down Gosnell’s clinic years before," write the investigators. Why wasn't it? Were state regulators nervous about igniting a political fight about abortion? Is the regulatory system incompetent or under-funded? And are there other states where the same could be said? Social conservatives are largely right about the Gosnell story. Maybe it's not a raw political story. It's just the story of a potential mass murderer who operated for decades as government regulators did nothing.

Correction, April 12, 2013: This blog post originally misidentified Mollie Hemingway in one instance by her maiden name, Ziegler.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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