Making the Right Argument in the Gosnell Murder Case

On Monday, Dr.  Kermit Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for the death of three babies born alive at his abortion clinic in Philadelphia. Just yesterday Gosnell waived his right to appeal in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.  This sentence marks the end of a corrupt medical practice – but also a media frenzy. The Gosnell case may be over, but its coverage (and argued lack thereof) caused a wave of commentary on media coverage and the wider issue of abortion. Many pro-life voices use the Gosnell case as an argument against abortion – however, many of the anti-abortion arguments only undermined the broader pro-life cause.

After Kirsten Powers ousted the media in April for failing to cover the Gosnell trial adequately, many voices in the pro-life movement seemed to see the case as an opportunity to reveal the horrors of abortion. Some commentators focus on the lack of media coverage as a story in itself – media bias is, indeed, something to be concerned about. However, most use the Gosnell story to discuss abortion overall. Red Alert Politicscalled the Gosnell debacle a “victory” handed to the pro-life movement by the media. Powers’ original editorial linked the late-term abortions to Planned Parenthood: "Planned Parenthood recently claimed that the possibility of infants surviving late-term abortions was ‘highly unusual.’ The Gosnell case suggests otherwise."

At the Christian Post, Star Parker wrote a column about how practices like those at the Gosnell clinic are extremely common. She links this to Planned Parenthood and their conduction of abortions, but her article is predominately about how abortion clinics are often unsanitary and unsafe and how the press "does not want to report about the gruesome truths of abortion.”

National Right to Life News also called out the “Abortion Industry” and arguedthat the conditions at the Gosnell clinic were more the norm than an aberration.  The National Right to Life abortion information page features medical details – most of them gruesome – about the procedures involved in abortions at various stages.

These pro-life activists do themselves a disservice. The Gosnell story brought attention to the abortion debate, but as a result, many in the anti-abortion side of the discussion are inappropriately focusing on the gruesomeness of the clinic. This tactic is rhetorically unproductive.

The Gosnell story was indeed horrific, but when pro-life commentators make arguments that hinge on the horrific conditions of some abortion clinics, it distracts from the more compelling argument for the acknowledgement of human life. People are rightly horrified at the cases of infanticide in the Gosnell trial; but, according to the values of many of these pro-life activists, all abortions should be considered infanticide.

Similarly, late-term abortions are easy to attack due to the possibility of a failed abortion and endangering the mother. However, focusing on late-term abortions only opens up space for legislation allowing earlier abortions.

Gruesome conditions and horrific procedures like those at the Gosnell clinic are, yes, horrific, but focusing on that as a central argument against abortion leaves a key rhetorical gap - it suggests that abortion would be less abhorrent if the operations were clean, professional, and sanitary. This is a problem because many abortion clinics ARE clean, professional, and sanitary – and government funding for these clinics, it can be argued, may further improve conditions. If the pro-life argument is to be successful, it will be based on the existence of a human life in the womb; this is its most consistent stance.

Many in the pro-life movement focus on the unsafe conditions at many abortion clinics, but the fact is that there may come a time when the vast majority of abortion clinics are well-funded, professionally staffed, and medically safe for pregnant women. The crazed, corrupt doctor is an easy target to point a finger at right now, but this detracts from what should be the pro-life movement's strongest and most consistent argument.

Appealing to our collective horror and disgust may bring the issue to the front of public attention. However, it will ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the anti-abortion movement as a whole. There is a sound philosophical and logical argument against abortion. If the pro-life movement deviates from this foundation, they may at first win the attention of the public, but they will ultimately surrender the legitimacy of their argument. 

-Elisa Shearer, a 2012 Houghton College grad, is currently pursuing a Master’s in Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University.