Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.12.13

Why I Didn't Write About Gosnell's Trial--And Why I Should Have

Gosnell is accused of grisly crimes that I didn't want to think about.

Kermit Gosnell, a Pennsylvania abortion doctor, is on trial for a lurid series of lurid crimes at his clinic. I can't bring myself to describe them, so I'll let Kirsten Powers do it.

Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations?

It's not your fault. Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page. The revolting revelations of Gosnell's former staff, who have been testifying to what they witnessed and did during late-term abortions, should shock anyone with a heart.

NBC-10 Philadelphia reported that, Stephen Massof, a former Gosnell worker, "described how he snipped the spinal cords of babies, calling it, 'literally a beheading. It is separating the brain from the body." One former worker, Adrienne Moton, testified that Gosnell taught her his "snipping" technique to use on infants born alive.

The evangelicals in my twitter and Facebook feed are asking, justifiably, why these crimes seem to be nowhere in the media.  You'd think that a lurid crime touching an issue of major national importance would be covered everywhere.  And yet, there's been been very little.  Mollie Hemingway has been asking reporters who ordinarily cover this beat why:

Then I decided, since tmatt has me reading the Washington Post every day, to look at how the paper’s health policy reporter was covering Gosnell. I have critiqued many of her stories on the Susan G. Komen Foundation (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Sandra Fluke controversy (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Todd Akin controversy (you know where this is going). In fact, a site search for that reporter — who is named Sarah Kliff — and stories Akin and Fluke and Komen — yields more than 80 hits. Guess how many stories she’s done on this abortionist’s mass murder trial.
Did you guess zero? You’d be right.

So I asked her about it. Here’s her response:

Hi Molly – I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention.

Yes. She really, really, really said that. As Robert VerBruggen dryly responded:

Makes sense. Similarly, national gun-policy people do not cover local crime in places like Aurora or Newtown.

So when a private foundation privately decides to stop giving money to the country’s largest abortion provider, that is somehow a policy issue deserving of three dozen breathless hits. When a yahoo political candidate says something stupid about rape, that is a policy issue of such import that we got another three dozen hits about it from this reporter. It was so important that journalists found it fitting to ask every pro-lifer in their path to discuss it. And when someone says something mean to a birth control activist, that’s good for months of puffy profiles.

I know and like Sarah Kliff, and this seems harsh to me; there's a lot of news out there, and sometimes we don't cover everything our readers would like.  

But Hemingway (who I also know and like), does have a point: the MSM has barely covered a story that could plausibly be named "The Trial of the Century".  And that demands explanation.  So I'll tell you why I haven't covered it.

To start, it makes me ill.  I haven't been able to bring myself to read the grand jury inquiry. I am someone who cringes when I hear a description of a sprained ankle.  

But I understand why my readers suspect me, and other pro-choice mainstream journalists, of being selective—of not wanting to cover the story because it showcased the ugliest possibilities of abortion rights. The truth is that most of us tend to be less interested in sick-making stories—if the sick-making was done by "our side."  

Of course, I'm not saying that I identify with criminal abortionists who kill infants and grievously wound their patients.  But I am pro-choice.

What Gosnell did was not some inevitable result of legal abortion.  But while legal abortion was not sufficient to create the horrors in Philadelphia, it was necessary.  Gosnell was able to harm so many women and babies because he operated in the open.

Moreover, as Jeffrey Goldberg points out, this has disturbing implications for late-term abortions.  It suggests that sometimes, those fetuses are delivered alive.  Worse, it hints at what we might be doing inside the womb to ensure that the other ones aren't.  I don't think that this affected my thinking, since I don't support late-term abortions of viable infants unless the mother's life is in danger.  But I understand why pro-lifers have their suspicions.

I could also offer Kliff's defense, that this is a local crime.  But  George Tiller's murder was also a local crime. There was no "national policy issue" involved: murder is a matter for state law. And there was no real question that if Tiller's murderer was caught, he was going to be tried and convicted for the killing. Nonetheless, lots of national journalists--including Sarah Kliff, for Newsweek--covered the killing and discussed what it meant for abortion provision nationwide.  

If I think about it for a moment, there are obviously lots of policy implications of Gosnell's baby charnel house.  How the hell did this clinic operate for seventeen years without health inspectors discovering his brutal crimes?  Are there major holes in our medical regulatory system?  More to the point, are those holes created, in part, by the pressure to go easy on abortion clinics, or more charitably, the fear of getting tangled in a hot-button political issue?  These have clear implications for abortion access, and abortion politics.

After all, when ostensibly neutral local regulations threaten to restrict abortion access--as with Virginia's recent moves to require stricter regulatory standards for abortion clinics, and ultrasounds for women seeking abortions--the national media thinks that this is worthy of remark.  If local governments are being too lax on abortion clinics, surely that is also worthy of note.  

Moreover, surely those of us who are pro-choice must worry that this will restrict access to abortion:  that a crackdown on abortion clinics will follow, with onerous white-glove inspections; that a revolted public will demand more restrictions on late-term abortions; or that women will be too afraid of Gosnell-style crimes to seek a medically necessary abortion.

 And yet, behold the press section of the courtroom:

Gosnell Trial
Empty seats reserved for press at Gosnell Trial. (JD Mullane/phillyburbs.com)

This story should have been covered much more than it was—covered as a national policy issue, not a "local crime story."  The press has literally been AWOL.

I could defend myself by saying that I wasn't aware that the Gosnell trial was going on.  Abortion is not my beat, and the mailing lists that I am on weren't exactly blasting the news of this trial.

But that doesn't totally let me off the hook.  I knew about the Gosnell case, and I wish I had followed it more closely, even though I'd rather not.  In fact, those of us who are pro-choice should be especially interested.  The whole point of legal abortion is to prevent what happened in Philadelphia: to make it safer and more humane.  Somehow that ideal went terribly, horribly awry.  We should demand to know why.

What happened in Philadelphia should never happen again, and all of us—not just the Philadelphia police—should be asking how we make sure it doesn't.  I don't know the answer to that yet, because I still don't understand what happened in Pennsylvania.  But I'll be working to figure it out.