The media are afire over the case of Kermit Gosnell, the now unlicensed doctor who provided abortions out of a filthy, uninspected clinic in Philadelphia for years before being shut down by authorities. He’s finally on trial after the 2010 raid that put a stop to his practice -- which involved practices like “ensuring fetal demise” by snipping the spinal cords of infants with scissors.
When a fetus is delivered post-viability and is clearly alive upon delivery, it is no longer a fetus. It is an infant. Thus you are not “ensuring fetal demise,” you are committing murder. Which is one of the things Gosnell is on trial for.
People are demanding to know where the coverage of Gosnell and his trial has been, and the right in particular is going absolutely ballistic, claiming some sort of pro-choice conspiracy (as though the right was covering the case in detail) to hide the misdeeds of Gosnell in some sort of sick and twisted scheme.
The true story of what’s going on here is so far removed from these claims that it’s almost absurd. The root assumption that the media aren't covering the case is wrong, and the interpretation of the pro-choice ramifications of the situation being advanced by media critics is also often wrong. This case does have huge potential ramifications for the pro-choice community, but not because it's an argument for making abortion illegal. Just the opposite, in fact.
Because what Gosnell was doing wasn't providing abortions. It was murder.
Let’s start in 2010, which is when authorities finally conducted a raid after years of complaints indicating that something very, very wrong was happening at Gosnell’s “clinic” in Philadelphia. What they found was horrific. It has been described, rightly so, as an abattoir, or a chamber of horrors. Investigators found, for example, a freezer filled with fetuses that were dated as far back as 30 years.
Gosnell’s “clinic” was filthy, filled with unsterilized disposable instruments being used repeatedly on a population of primarily low-income patients, outdated medical equipment, and gruesome conditions. It was also segregated, with white patients getting the reasonably clean office with a television to wait, while women of color were stuck in a filthy, terrifying waiting room. These patients had nowhere else to go for safe, compassionate, responsible abortion care, turning to Gosnell as a last resort.
The investigation was triggered by a patient death that occurred in the wake of an abortion at Gosnell’s clinic in 2009. The patient, an immigrant woman of color, was rushed to a hospital after complications, with all evidence suggesting that she was effectively brain dead by the time emergency services were called. Locked doors and crowded halls made it difficult to extract her from the facility, while lies from Gosnell and his staff complicated hospital treatment.
This was the point where the story began popping up in the media. An unregulated abortion clinic associated with patient deaths, gruesome findings in multiple police raids, and mushrooming lawsuits, including one dating to a 2000 patient death associated with an abortion at his facility, was enough to prick the ears of a number of journalists.
Kate Harding wrote about the situation in 2010 for Salon, noting that staff at the facility were ordered to perform procedures despite lacking training and licenses, and discussing the fact that the clinic was already attracting the attention of anti-choice groups and media preparing to use it as evidence that abortion is evil and dangerous, and should be more tightly regulated or even banned.
Comparisons to licensed, responsible physicians performing abortions and other reproductive health facilities in sterile conditions with trained, licensed staff were made almost immediately, smearing the entire profession with Gosnell’s reputation. The comparisons didn’t even have to be explicit; anti-choicers could simply imply the connection.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes doctors who provide abortions do behave unethically, bizarrely and unforgivably, and Gosnell seems to be one of them. And even though physicians of every stripe cross legal and ethical boundaries, the existing stigma surrounding abortion providers — the notion that doctors offering safe, legal medical procedures are “baby killers” operating out of “filthy mills” — combined with some especially gruesome details means that a story like this is bound to catch fire.
And it did, among a number of anti-choice groups, in addition to being covered in most major US news outlets.
The Grand Jury Report
Then came 2011, and the release of the grand jury report into the situation, which was covered internationally. We’ll start with the coverage in Philadelphia itself: Jeff Deeney, writing for Phawker, pointed out that the report did tremendous damage for groups crusading for access to safe abortion care. The right wing, of course, was taking the details of the grand jury report, which were awful, and extending them to all abortion providers.
But Deeney, like Harding at Salon earlier, put his finger on the real problem with Gosnell’s clinics, and the more important news story that was being buried in the haste to condemn abortion providers:
As a social worker I have counseled women not unlike those who live in the poor West Philadelphia neighborhood the Women’s Medical Society targeted for providing unsafe and illegal abortions. I’m talking about TANF moms, young single parents with no income source for supporting their families other than public welfare. The typical TANF mom will get her other health care needs served at one of the city’s health clinics, and it’s worth noting for outsiders that Health Center #4 which serves the same neighborhood is the best in town, providing quality care for the uninsured poor. But Health Centers don’t do abortions, and Medicaid, where a TANF mom’s insurance coverage would come from, if she had any at all, doesn’t pay for them. And for these women the cost of paying for an abortion out of pocket breaks the budget, leaving mom scrambling to make next month’s rent or possibly wind up on the street.
In other words, this clinic existed in the first place because of restrictions on abortion access, not because of the supposed inherent evils of abortion. If Gosnell’s patients had been given another choice, they would have taken it. Their decision to walk through the doors of the Women’s Medical Society was based on the fact that it was the only thing they could afford, even though they knew it was dangerous.
In the section of the grand jury report titled, “How Did This Go On So Long?” the jury outlines in great detail the multiple levels of oversight failure that allowed Gosnell to murder viable babies and endanger women in plain sight of the medical and regulatory communities for years. Failure ran across all levels of both state and local agencies; the PA Department of Health, Department of State, Philadelphia Department of Health and other local doctors all share a place in the intersecting lattice of complicity that allowed Gosnell’s illegal activities to continue unabated.
This situation happened because of a failure of the regulatory system. Not because abortion is bad. And one reason the regulatory system failed here was because Gosnell was performing procedures on low-income women, predominantly women of color and immigrants, the very people the government protects the least despite their increased vulnerability.
In response to the report, Governor Corbett made a number of high-profile firings and claimed to be committed to reform on the state level to prevent such a thing from happening again. It was an embarrassment for both the state and the city.
The grand jury report attracted international attention. The “Daily Mail” sensationalized it, focusing on some of the worst horrors of the case, including the story of a patient who was forced to have an abortion and contracted a sexually transmitted infection as a result of improperly maintained instruments. Notably, the reason this patient went to Gosnell in the first place is because when she attempted to go to Planned Parenthood, she was terrified by anti-choice protesters.
She wasn’t the only patient forced into having an abortion at Gosnell’s clinic. Another patient reported being taken there as a teen by a family member and compelled into getting an abortion. When she told Gosnell she didn’t consent to the procedure, she was held down and then tied to the stirrups while Gosnell performed the procedure against her will.
Gosnell further captured his market by offering what amounted to bargain basement abortions, outbidding the competition and agreeing to perform illegal procedures. Patients who felt like they had nowhere to turn and no more resources to hand went to Gosnell. And rather than identifying his clinic as a horrific outlier, a rogue medical facility that reflected a profound violation of medical ethics, the right characterized it as an abortion clinic just like any other.
2011 also marked Gosnell’s arraignment, in which he seemed shocked and surprised that he was being charged. CNN reported that prosecutors might seek the death penalty, illustrating the fact that highly respected nationally distributed media platforms were reporting on the Gosnell case. The news was out there. No one was covering it up.
In 2011, Katha Pollitt wrote two the most important words in the discussion about the Gosnell case: illegal abortion. In her piece on Gosnell’s “horror show,” she argued that the situation at Gosnell’s facility was a clear argument not for further restrictions on abortion, but in fact for increased access, because in a world where abortion is difficult to get, such “clinics” flourish.
And the procedures performed in them are illegal, involving violations of numerous health and safety laws as well as the criminal code. Gosnell murdered infants. Legal abortion does not involve inducing labor and then slitting the neck of the subsequent baby to sever the spinal cord.
She pointed out that the media were already advancing mythologies about how Gosnell’s clinic was the result of pro-choice lobbying, while in fact pro-choice groups were horrified by the conditions at the clinic. They certainly did not, as some outlets claimed, promote reduced inspections at abortion clinics, and in fact the National Abortion Federation refused a 2009 membership application from Gosnell on the grounds that his clinic (cleaned up for their visit) failed to meet their standards.
Reportage on the case slowed in 2012, because there wasn’t as much to report. However, numerous anti-choice groups kept Gosnell in the news and in their networks -- and so did women’s media, particularly organizations focusing on reproductive health. And suddenly, last week, the media exploded with claims that there had been a massive coverup and the Gosnell story wasn’t being covered by mainstream media. Everyone demanded to know why, and various reporters wrote navel-gazing pieces evaluating their failings.
The first thing the bulk of these pieces ignored was the fact that the case had been covered, in fact quite extensively. The claims that it hadn’t been were a surprise to women journalists, progressive news organizations, women's media groups, and reproductive health-centered media outlets, who were covering it very thoroughly. More than a surprise, actually: a slap in the face.
Because to say that something isn’t news until men are talking about is a profound illustration of sexism and a real sign of disrespect to the scores of hardworking women journalists who went above and beyond in pursuit of news on the Gosnell case, who pushed it in every media outlet they could, and who pitched numerous stories that probably never saw the light of day.
Why? Because “women’s issues” aren’t deemed news in the United States. The reason the Gosnell case didn’t attract as much mainstream media attention as it should have (compare CNN coverage on, for example, school shootings) was because it was about low-income women dying and being subjected to horrific conditions in an illegal abortion clinic. This isn’t considered hard-hitting news.
Mark Adomanis, a Philadelphia native, also discussed the fact that most major media in the United States are based in New York and Washington, DC, and that national media overall tends to focus primarily on these regions. Thanks to the consolidation of media, it’s harder for regional stories to get coverage, even when they’re of critical importance -- and it’s not like Philadelphia media didn’t cover this case. In fact, Adomanis dredged up a long list of stories with a very quick search of newspaper archives.
Local papers, especially independent papers, are struggling to survive in this media landscape. Philadelphia actually has a lively alternative media community as well as established newspapers, but neither are read widely outside of the region. This reduces the chance of national media picking up on an important local story.
There have been claims that there’s some kind of vast left-wing media conspiracy to keep the Gosnell case out of the news because liberal-leaning pro-choice media don’t want people hearing about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pro-choice groups and reporters want to scream this story from the rooftops because it is a gruesome and eloquent illustration of exactly why we need access to safe, affordable, compassionate abortion services across the United States.
This situation happened because of the growing power of the anti-choice lobby in the United States. Kermit Gosnell wouldn’t have had patients if people hadn’t been driven to him out of desperation because they had no other options. Liberal independent media have been discussing this case for precisely that reason; and as for the lack of mainstream media coverage, it has a lot to do with abortion being a “women’s issue.”
Many people seem genuinely surprised about this case, as though they’re just hearing about it for the first time. The right wing is crowing about this, claiming a victory as though the only reason it’s attracting attention is because of their campaigns to “confront” the media on their alleged silence. That completely erases the contributions of women journalists, pro-choice groups, and liberal media outlets that have been following, and reporting on, the Gosnell case from the start.
Wondering why you didn’t hear about the Gosnell case until just now? It clearly has something to do with the media you read -- but it also has something to do with a society that considers women of least interest politically, socially, and culturally. This case isn't considered a news hook because it's about women, because it's about reproductive rights, because it's about low-income women of color in particular.
Has this case been as widely covered as it should? No. But let's not act like it wasn't covered. And let's not act like the reason for the lack of mainstream media attention is a coverup: it's sexism, pure and simple.