Commentary Abortion

The Media and the Gosnell Case: A Case of Insecurity and a Misinformation Campaign

Tara Murtha

Gosnell is the result of politicizing women’s health care, and his case, in turn, has been used to further politicize women’s health care.

In recent days, amidst cries of a media “blackout,” a number of journalists have admitted to either missing or dismissing the story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell over the past two years. As one of the many journalists who has been covering the Gosnell story since it broke in early 2011, all I can say is: We tried to get the story out there. But more importantly, this politics-of-media framework distracts from the circuitous politics that enabled, and resulted from, Gosnell’s actual crimes and the women who were affected.

What Media Blackout?

After spending much of 2010 interviewing 58 witnesses, in January 2011 the Philadelphia district attorney’s office published a 281-page report accusing Kermit Gosnell of grotesque, depraved crimes.

There was blood on the floor. A stench of urine filled the air. A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat feces on the stairs. Semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with bloodstained blankets. All the women had been sedated by unlicensed staff—long before Gosnell arrived at the clinic—and staff members could not accurately state what medications or dosages they had administered to the waiting patients. Many of the medications in inventory were past their expiration dates.

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Fetal remains were stored in milk jugs and cat food containers. A janitor admitted he routinely pulled fetal parts out of pipes. Unlicensed, untrained staff, including a high school student, pumped cheap, powerful drugs into the veins of women who were chemically coaxed into zombie-like stupors that sometimes lasted days.

Last week, Kristen Powers published an op-ed in USA Today that sparked a Twitter shame campaign, directly asking prominent national journalists why they hadn’t covered the case. And it worked. Now, more than three years after the raid and more than two years after the grand jury report, some national journalists who ignored the case entirely are suddenly wildly interested.

After years of coverage from outlets in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, outlets focused on women’s health issues, and yes, mainstream media outlets, apparently all it took to catch the attention of writers such as Slate’s Dave WeigelThe Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg was to target their collective egos—specifically, their insecurity about being perceived as having a liberal bias.

Weigel, one of the first writers to develop a sudden interest in Gosnell after Powers’ piece, wrote that when he read about Gosnell back in 2011, he didn’t “see a political story to chase.”

At 3801 Lancaster, the site of Gosnell’s clinic, patients chose their medicine and painkillers a la carte. In other words, the more cash a patient could give Gosnell, the more painkiller she could get. The poorer the patient, the more she would suffer. With all the talk about the Affordable Care Act, you’d think that such starkly stratified access to quality health care would be an interesting political story. The story touches on poverty, abortion, civil rights, state rights, healthcare, increasing inequality and race, to name a few topics of political interest that, if nothing else, came up quite a bit during the presidential election.

What Weigel really meant, of course, is that he didn’t see a story worth chasing. “Bored media,” indeed.

It’s telling that Weigel, whose original post characterized Slate writer William Saletan as something of a brave lone soul breaking the media silence around the case, had to issue a correction clarifying that actually, Slate writer Amanda Marcotte also wrote about the case—almost a month before Saletan. He just didn’t notice.

I would be more convinced of a left-wing media blackout if the story of an alleged drug trafficker who was allowed to maim and murder women for years because of serious oversight failures wasn’t dismissed as a “women’s issue,” written about mostly by female reporters and apparently not well read by male journalists.

In any case, the journalists who missed the story are not victims of a liberal media conspiracy, and neither are the conservatives leading the recent media campaign. From the very beginning, the right viewed the Kermit Gosnell trial as a tremendous media opportunity.

In the spring of 2011, anti-choice group Operation Rescue traveled to Pennsylvania to hold a meeting in a church basement in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was a pilgrimage.

“Philadelphia is in many ways similar to the Alamo,” Operation Rescue President Troy Newman told the small crowd of mostly elderly citizens, as reported in the Philadelphia Weekly. “You’re here, this is your moment. … God handed you an opportunity for success. For victory.” (It was apparently lost on the crowd of suburban churchgoers that they were being asked to gather intel on local doctors for an organization linked to the murder of at least one.)

Newman didn’t bother with spin when talking among friends. “[Young reporters] are not the old-school bra-burning feminists,” Newman said. “The majority of them are pro-life. It’s just the old hardened producers now that we’ve got to just wait for them to fall off the apple cart.”

Manipulating the media is made easier by targeting journalists who are more concerned with hiding their own blind spots and biases than pursuing the truth. While I welcome more journalists taking a look at the Gosnell case, it would be helpful if they would begin by reading the grand jury report that’s now been online for 27 months. If they read it, they wouldn’t be pounding the table, asking, How could Kermit Gosnell have happened?

From the report: “[In 1993] the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all.”

Political Causes and Implications

In 1989, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey signed the landmark Abortion Control Act (ACA) into law. The ACA established, for the first time, that states could pass restrictions on access to services, though Roe still ensured that states couldn’t outlaw abortion outright. Pennsylvania’s ACA is the blueprint for state-level restrictions to abortion access across the country. After that, abortion had become so politicized that the next governor, pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge, made the woefully misguided decision to not address abortion altogether.

Fast forward to December 2011, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a bill that, as it was designed to do, shut down some abortion clinics in the state. Over-regulating clinics out of business is an old strategy that advocates say conservative Pennsylvania legislators have been wanting to pass for years, and they finally got it done by lying to the public, claiming the bill was proposed in response to Gosnell. Since the new regulations took effect, Pennsylvania has gone from having 19 clinics that offer surgical abortion—and pap smears, and birth control, and education—down to only 13, as of January.

So this sudden burst of interest in the Gosnell case and shaking of fists comes too late for Pennsylvania women. Meanwhile, Gosnell’s name is still being invoked to help pass similar laws around the country. “There was a widely felt impact,” Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, told Rewire. “The Gosnell case was being used in Utah to change their clinic regulations. It was being brought up in Virginia surrounding their clinic regulations.”

Gosnell is the result of politicizing women’s health care, and his case, in turn, has been used to further politicize women’s health care. Real information about the effect of shutting down abortion clinics—preventable injury, illness, and death, not to mention forced births, all of which happened at Gosnell’s clinic—has been squeezed out of the conversation.

It makes awful sense that the Gosnell case happened in Pennsylvania, where state-level restrictions were established by former Gov. Casey. Notice how a post-Casey world is starting to look a lot like a pre-Roe one. When women don’t have access to safe health care and abortion services, enterprising capitalists like Gosnell start to pop up and women live by the rule: The less money you have, the more you will suffer.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

Commentary Human Rights

The Democratic National Convention Was a Remarkable Victory for Disabled People

s.e. smith

This year's convention included disabled people every evening, as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Her speech included many of the elements one expects from a nominee, but there were some standout moments—like when she mentioned disability rights, which she did repeatedly.

Clinton integrated disability into her discussion of her record, talking about her work to ensure that disabled children have the right to go to school and bringing up the health-care needs of disabled youth. Her commentary reinforced the fact that she has always cared about disability issues, particularly in the context of children’s rights.

But she did more than that. She referenced shortages of mental health beds. She explicitly called out disability rights as necessary to defend. And at one point, she did not mention disability, which in itself was radical. When she outlined her plans for gun reform and clearly stated that she wanted to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, she referenced people with criminal histories and terrorists, but not mentally ill people, who have been fighting a surge in stigma thanks to perennial (and wildly incorrect) assertions that mental illness causes violence. That omission was clearly deliberate, given the meticulous level of crafting that goes into writing one of the most important speeches of a presidential candidate’s career.

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The nominee’s speech would have been remarkable on its own, but what made it truly outstanding is that it was far from the first appearance of disability at this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC). The convention included disabled people every evening as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists, who are used to being invisible. These kinds of appearances normalized disability, presenting it as a part of some people’s lives and a source of pride, not shame or misery.

On Monday, for example, disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza rolled out to give a sharp, compelling speech that didn’t cast disability in a tragic or exceptional light. She wasn’t the only wheelchair user to appear on the DNC stage—Paralympic athlete Mallory Weggemann led the pledge of allegiance on a different evening. Dynah Haubert, an attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, took the stage on Tuesday. Nor were wheelchair users the only disabled people represented. Ryan Moore, a longtime friend of Clinton’s, spoke about health care and his experiences as a man with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital syndrome, a form of dwarfism. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy talked about his learning disabilities. Musician Demi Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, took on mental health.

Former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a nondisabled man who played an instrumental role in the push to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, taught the crowd sign language during a lively speech about the fight for disability rights on Tuesday, the 26th anniversary of the landmark legislation.

On Wednesday night, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) strode out onto the DNC stage in Philadelphia, smiling and waving at the crowd, to make a few short remarks. “Speaking is difficult for me,” she concluded, “but come January 2017 I want to say these two words: ‘Madam President.'” Her speech was about gun violence—a subject with which she’s intimately familiar after being shot in the head in 2011.

This level of representation is unprecedented. Some speakers, like Somoza, explicitly talked about disability rights, putting the subject in the spotlight in a way it’s never been at previous conventions. Others, like Giffords, came up on stage to talk about something else entirely—and happened to represent disability while they were at it. Similarly, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a decorated combat veteran and double amputee, talked about military policy.

This is a striking contrast from the treatment of disability at previous Democratic National Conventions: When disabled people have appeared, it’s often been in the form of a lackluster performance that objectifies disability, rather than celebrating it, as in 1996 when former actor Christopher Reeve framed disability as a medical tragedy.

Disability rights activists have spent decades fighting for this kind of representation. In 1992, two years after the passage of the ADA, the platform included just three mentions of disability. This year, the subject comes up in 36 instances, woven throughout the platform for an integrated approach to disability as a part of society, rather than as something that needs to be walled off into a tiny section of the platform, tokenized, and then dismissed.

In the intervening years, disabled people in the United States have fought for the enforcement of the ADA, and taken the right to independent living to court in 1999’s Olmsted v. L.C., which was namechecked in the 2000 platform and then forgotten. Disabled people advocated to have their rights in school codified with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, pushed for inclusion in 2010’s Affordable Care Act, and are fighting to pass the Community Choice Act and Disability Integration Act (DIA). Disability rights in the United States has come a long way since 1990’s infamous Capitol Crawl, in which disability rights activists dragged themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, pleading with Congress to pass the ADA.

And as activists have pushed for progress in the courts and in Congress, disability rights have slowly become more prominent in the Democratic party platform. The ADA has been a consistent theme, appearing in every platform since 1992 alongside brief references to civil rights; historically, however, the focus has been on disability as a medical issue. The 1996 platform introduced Medicare, and health care in general, as issues important to the disability community, a refrain that was reiterated in years to come. In numerous years, Democrats addressed concerns about long-term care, in some cases positioning disabled people as objects of care rather than independent people. Disabled veterans have also played a recurring role in the platform’s discussion of military issues. But beyond these topics—again, often approached from a dehumanizing angle—and the occasional lip service to concerns about discrimination and equal rights, until the 2000s, education was the only really consistent disability issue.

In 2000, however, the Democrats went big, building on eight years under President Bill Clinton, and the influence of his then-first lady. For the first time, disability wasn’t simply lumped under “civil rights.” The platform explicitly called out the need for protection from disability hate crimes, but it also began to introduce the idea that there were other issues of relevance to the disability with a discussion of the digital divide and the obstacles that held disabled people back. Almost 30 years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which barred disability discrimination by government agencies and contractors, the Democrats were starting to embrace issues like accessibility and independent living, which also played a prominent role in 2000.

It was a hint that the party was starting to think about disability issues in a serious way, especially when in 2008, the Democrats discussed the shameful delay on ratification of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, took on the Community Choice Act, talked about the need to enforce IDEA, and, again for the first time, explicitly addressed voting rights issues. By 2012, they were also calling out discriminatory voter ID laws and their disproportionate effect on the disabled community.

That’s tremendous, though incremental, progress.

And this week, the efforts of a generation of disability rights activists are on display everywhere in Philadelphia, where Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky observed that accessibility is a top priority across the city. The DNC is providing expanded accessible seating, wheelchair charging stations, service dog relief areas, Braille materials, closed captioning, American Sign Language interpreters, medication refrigerators, and more. That’s radical inclusion at work, and the result of incredible efforts by disability rights organizers—including the 400 delegates who disclosed disabilities.

Those same organizers have been hounding the presidential candidates, holding them accountable on disability over and over again. They’ve brought up concerns about independent living, wage disparities, education, access to services, accessibility, hate crimes, reproductive rights, the “marriage penalty” and government benefits, and casual disablism in campaign rhetoric and practices. Advocates leaned on the Clinton campaign until it began captioning its content, for example. RespectAbility sent journalists out on the trail, #CriptheVote organized Twitter, and Rev Up encouraged people to register to vote and get involved. The disability community may be more explicitly politically active this year than ever before, and the DNC has been responding accordingly.

Clearly in consultation with disability rights activists, the Democrats have brought a host of new issues into this year’s platform, acknowledging that disabled people are part of U.S. society. Some of the many issues unique to this year’s platform include: abolition of the subminimum wage, concerns about economic opportunities with an explicitly intersectional discussion of the racial wealth gap, affordable housing, accessibility at the polls, the role of disability in the school-to-prison pipeline, and the need for more accurate Census data.

Notably, in a platform that has loudly called for a Hyde Amendment repeal and pushed for other abortion rights, the Democrats have also reinforced the need for access to reproductive health for disabled people, a revolutionary clause that’s gone virtually unnoticed.

This is a platform—and convention—of aggressive inclusion, and it reflects a victory for disabled people in the United States. It does still lack some components the disability community would like to see, like a shoutout to the DIA, which Clinton supports. This is, however, the start of what looks like a robust and real relationship between the Democrats and the disability rights community.