In June of 2013, Delaware pediatrician Earl Brian Bradley was convicted of raping about 100 children, including babies, and abusing hundreds of others over a period of several years. He ultimately received 14 life sentences without parole for multiple counts of first-degree rape and more than 160 years for several counts of assault and sexual exploitation of a child. At Bradley’s sentencing, Judge William Carpenter Jr. told him: “You will never be in a position to harm a child again.” Judge Carpenter said, “You have severely violated [the] trust [placed in you by parents and the state], and you have shamed your profession.”
Just a month earlier, on Monday, May 13, 2013, a Philadelphia doctor named Kermit Gosnell was found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder for killing babies born alive after illegal abortions conducted at his “clinic.” Gosnell was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a female patient. He received the equivalent of three life sentences for these crimes, plus an additional 30 years in prison for running a “pill mill” out of the same facility.
Both sets of crimes were horrific and revolting. In both cases, laws were already in place to prevent them and those laws worked when they were enforced, even if only after many victims had been harmed. Nowhere in the United States is it legal for doctors to sexually abuse their patients, nor is it legal anywhere to engage in the crimes for which Gosnell was convicted. Both men are in prison for life. And both men brought, to paraphrase Judge Carpenter, shame on their professions. The failures in both cases were of law enforcement, not the law itself.
There is, however, at least one key difference: While no one appears to have suggested that Bradley is emblematic of all pediatricians throughout the United States, Gosnell’s outrageous case is being used by extremists to perpetuate lies in an ongoing effort to luridly paint all abortion providers with the same brush. In doing so, they aim to totally eliminate abortion care—one of the safest of all medical services—in the United States.
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In a new docudrama titled Gosnell, ostensibly to be released in early 2017, the anti-choice movement seeks to revive a long list of disproven claims and outright lies about abortion care in the hopes, it is assumed, that the growing market for falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and propaganda will help make their case for outlawing abortion altogether. Whether they succeed will depend at least in part on whether and how journalists cover the film and whether they report on the facts, not the sensationalism.
Gosnell as Scare Tactic
The anti-choice movement has long seen the Gosnell case as a watershed for convincing the public and Congress to ban abortion. As I wrote in May 2013:
The trial of Kermit Gosnell provides anti-choicers and their allies with a perfect platform for their efforts. In Gosnell, they have an unethical, unscrupulous criminal acting as a doctor. He preyed on women too poor to seek early, safe abortion care, ran a filthy “clinic,” and conducted illegal abortions during which, it is alleged, some infants were born alive and killed. In their quest to make safe, legal abortion care as inaccessible as possible, anti-choicers are now seeking to sway public policy by conflating safe abortion care with Gosnell’s atrocities, to tar all legitimate providers of safe abortion care as Gosnell clones, and to use a criminal case as a justification to drive legitimate providers out of business.
To date, Gosnell has failed to be the game changer hoped for by the anti-choice movement. With the benefit of hindsight and judging by the will of the people before and after Gosnell’s horrible acts became public, efforts to use Gosnell as representative of abortion and abortion providers writ large have not succeeded. This is evidently because people understand the difference between doctors who abide by the law and those who break it, just like they distinguish between normal people and serial killers.
One indicator that the public is not fooled is the fate of ballot initiatives before and after the Gosnell case. Take South Dakota, which is considered a solidly “pro-life” state in the superficial parlance of opinion polling. In both 2006 and 2008, well before Gosnell’s case was brought to national attention, ballot initiatives seeking to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation failed in the state by large and virtually identical margins, 55.57 percent to 44.43 percent and 55.21 percent to 44.79 percent, respectively.
After Gosnell was indicted and arrested in January 2011, anti-choice groups made clear their hopes that publicity around the case would so tarnish safe abortion and abortion providers that the public would rise up and join them in their quest to eliminate this reproductive health-care service entirely. Despite widespread media coverage, the story did not achieve their goals. In November 2011, ten months after Gosnell was arrested, voters in the otherwise conservative state of Mississippi roundly defeated a so-called personhood initiative that would have banned abortion outright. In 2013, voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also defeated a 20-week abortion ban. And in November 2014, a personhood initiative—similar to the one in Mississippi—went down for the third time in Colorado. Having failed to implement laws using the democratic process, the anti-choice movement instead turned toward the highly gerrymandered conservative legislatures across the country to pass an overwhelming number of restrictions against the will of the people.
Virulently anti-choice members of Congress also sought to capitalize on the sensationalism of the Gosnell case to push abortion bans. In May of 2013, Republican members of two congressional committees—the House Judiciary Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee—went on a fishing expedition to find “other Gosnells.” The committees sent letters to the departments of health and attorneys general in all 50 states, asking for thousands of pages of information about how each state monitors and regulates abortion. As Rewire Vice President of Investigations and Research Sharona Coutts previously reported:
“By now you are surely aware of the trial of Kermit Gosnell, who is charged with the serial murder of infants, the murder of a female patient, and other felonies committed in the operation of his abortion clinic in Philadelphia,” wrote committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Trent Franks (R-AZ), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, in the letter sent to all state attorneys general. “We are seeking to find out if state and local governments are being stymied in their efforts to protect the civil rights of newborns and their mothers by legal or financial obstacles that are within the federal government’s power to address.”
Her conclusion was that, “to the extent that anti-choice advocates claim that women are being put at risk by abortion services [in the manner of Gosnell’s clinic], these documents—from the very state entities charged with overseeing and regulating abortion—show the contrary. They show that abortion in the United States is highly regulated and overwhelmingly safe.”
Still, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of the safety of abortion care presented directly to Congress by the states, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) frequently made reference to the Gosnell case during a debate in which he supported a federal 20-week ban.
The problem, oftentimes, is less the dependence on lies and conspiracy theories by GOP congressmen like Franks, who are famous for trafficking in falsehoods to achieve their goals. Instead, it is the way in which the broader media treats the issues, either simply parroting far-right lies, as both MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Fox News’ Chris Wallace did during the presidential campaign this year, or expounding on abortion when they have no clue what they are talking about, as Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin did when the Gosnell story came out. These and other media elites have large audiences, but apparently can’t be bothered to truly understand the subject at hand.
Gosnell, the Movie
Irrespective of prior failures to use the Gosnell case to incite the public, the anti-choice movement is now trying again, with a docudrama, or what might be more accurately described as a “shock-you-drama.” At a screening of the film this past September, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List and other speakers implied that the film aims to tie all abortion providers together with Kermit Gosnell. In doing so, it suggests that like Gosnell, abortion providers lack compassion, and to further suggest that abortion care is unsafe, unsanitary, and unscrupulous. This is directly akin to a group going on a public crusade claiming that since one pediatrician is a pedophile, all pediatricians are pedophiles, using a film about a pediatrician convicted for pedophilia as proof. It’s the same as saying that if one pediatric dentist is found guilty of torturing and abusing his patients, all pediatric dentists must also be guilty. And like saying if one person masquerades as a plastic surgeon, performs illegal surgeries, and sexually assaults their patients, then all plastic surgeons must be the same.
Like any crudely made horror movie, the film seeks to achieve these ends by using the most gruesome aspects of an egregious crime to inflame passions. Sensational footage of “baby parts,” filthy conditions, and untrained assistants all are part of a movie that seeks to implicate abortion providers in the crimes of a felon whose practices were unquestionably and undeniably horrific and do not comport with standard or accepted medical practice of any kind, nor do they have anything to do with the clinics in which legal abortions are performed. Its supporters also seek to shame the media by claiming that Gosnell’s arrest and trial were not even covered by the press at all, a claim belied by just a few examples of the extensive press coverage here, here, here, here, and here.
The movie’s references to babies “born alive”—a favorite shibboleth of the anti-choice movement—are grossly misleading given that 90 percent of abortions are performed before 12 weeks’ gestation, or more to the point, have nothing to do with any abortions at all. As I’ve written before, anti-choice groups have repeatedly used apocryphal tales of “ripping babies from the womb” to stigmatize later abortion care and incite public anger against abortion generally. This despite the fact that there is a federal law, as in it covers all the states, protecting us from these things: In 2002, President Bush signed a law making such an act illegal in any case. This makes nakedly clear that the real intention of the right is to engage in yet another effort to mislead.
The reality is that it was not lack of law or regulation, but rather lack of enforcement that allowed Gosnell to carry on for so long. Moreover, given the proclivity of the anti-choice movement to stage protests in front of legal abortion clinics and make up problems intended to shut them down, I find it curious at best that protests were not a feature at Gosnell’s office, nor did reports to the authorities come from anti-choice groups. Instead, it was ethical, legal providers who kept after the government to do something.
The natural consequence of the deeply anti-medical, anti-choice agenda will be to create more of the monsters they use to tar all providers. It is the network of evidence-based, medically trained abortion providers that prevents patients from seeking out clandestine services and the spread of back-alley tragedies like those for which Gosnell is serving time. As Amanda Marcotte wrote in 2013, Gosnell “made money exploiting desperate women, so the way to prevent future monsters like him is to make sure women aren’t desperate.”
Pro-choicers raise money for abortion funds, so more women can afford quality care. They set up volunteer-staffed help lines to get women through the process of seeing a reputable provider. They demand an end to the Hyde Amendment, so low-income women can use Medicaid to pay for quality providers. As pro-choice blogger PZ Myers wrote, Gosnell “could get by with criminally substandard treatment because our government has been actively destroying the ethical and competent competition.” We try to keep the ethical competition afloat to keep men like Gosnell from getting business. Which should not be conflated, as lying anti-choicers are doing, with trying to stop regulation.
The inconvenient truth here is that the very policies anti-choice activists espouse are the ones that create the conditions in which a rogue provider like Gosnell could thrive: limiting access to safe abortion care by closing clinics, requiring mandatory waiting periods and unnecessary hoops, driving up costs, denying patients living in poverty public support for safe abortion care, all resulting in abortions happening later than they otherwise would. These and other policies drive women to desperate circumstances, as a trip to any number of countries with high rates of maternal mortality from complications of unsafe abortion will make clear in graphic detail.
Abortion remains among the safest of all medical services in the United States and approximately one in three women of reproductive age will have an abortion at some point in her life. The agenda of the anti-choice movement is to make abortion illegal, criminalize women and doctors, and endanger the lives of both, using the media in part as its tool. That is the thing that should shock all of us. And it is up to journalists to continue to report the truth about how both media like Gosnell and policymakers use falsehoods to endanger the lives of real women in need of care. Nevertheless, we at Rewire will continue to do so.