GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRACIES and legal panels are not usually known for their vivid writing style. But "vivid" doesn't come close to conveying the driving force of the grand jury report released last week by the Philadelphia district attorney in connection with the Women's Medical Society, a long-established abortion clinic operated by Dr. Kermit Gosnell. The report was issued on the same day that Gosnell and nine of his employees were arrested on charges including murder, infanticide, and abuse of a corpse. In 261 pages of shatteringly clear prose, the grand jurors laid out their findings.
The remains of dozens of dead babies were found amid appallingly squalid conditions at this abortion clinic in West Philadelphia.
"This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women," the report begins. "What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy -- and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels -- and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it."
The report goes on to describe a horror-show -- a squalid operation in which hygiene was ignored, equipment was broken, and late-term abortions were routine. Pregnant women coming to Gosnell's clinic were treated with callous disdain, often left for hours to sit, semi-conscious and in pain, on dirty recliners covered with bloodstained blankets. Untrained and unsupervised employees administered powerful drugs to induce labor, and heavy sedatives to keep women from screaming.
Time and again, the grand jury says, late-term babies were delivered alive -- fully intact and breathing -- and then killed. But Gosnell didn't use the word "kill" to describe what he or his employees were doing. "He called it 'ensuring fetal demise.' The way he ensured fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby's neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called that 'snipping.' Over the years, there were hundreds of 'snippings.'" The report describes a case in which one of the clinic employees played with a newborn before slitting its neck.
The grand jury report came out just days before the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the endlessly controversial Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in every state. By the usual newsroom calculus, that should have made the ghastly revelations of this "baby charnel house" -- the grand jury's term -- a huge story. But outside of Philadelphia, the story got only muted attention.
Even after the story broke, Philadelphia's local Planned Parenthood chapter could only bring itself to "condemn any physician who does not follow the law or endangers anyone's health," and said women in such cases should "complain to the Department of Health." But the grand jury found that Pennsylvania authorities knew what was happening at Gosnell's abortion mill, yet deliberately looked the other way. After 1993, with the accession of a pro-choice governor, Republican Tom Ridge, the Pennsylvania Department of Health stopped inspecting abortion clinics. "Officials concluded that inspections would be 'putting a barrier up to women' seeking abortions," the report says, and decided "to leave clinics to do as they pleased."
Kermit Gosnell, who ran the Women's Medical Society, an abortion clinic, for decades, has been arrested on multiple charges of murder, infanticide, and abuse of a corpse.
The blunt clarity of the grand jury's findings could not contrast more sharply with the abstract euphemisms preferred by abortion's supporters.
In a statement marking Roe v. Wade's anniversary, President Obama referred not to "abortion," but to "women's health and reproductive freedom" and the importance of keeping government out of "private family matters." Planned Parenthood and NARAL's Blog for Choice celebrated Roe for enshrining "a woman's right to choose." Rarely can those who extoll "choice" bring themselves to acknowledge openly that what is being chosen is death.
Since 1973, Roe has led to the destruction of more than 40 million unborn babies. It has led to a desensitizing debasement of our language as well. Americans have gotten so used to the idea of life in the womb being violently killed in part because they camouflage that killing with feel-good labels like "reproductive freedom" and "choice." So pervasive is the mindset such language sustains that even when an alleged butcher like Gosnell comes along, the champions of "choice" offer only muted criticism.
Abortion is always a violent and awful thing, whether it happens in a squalid cesspit or in an immaculate doctor's office. Reasonable people can debate whether abortion should be legal, and under what circumstances. But they ought to be able to do so without euphemistic evasions. Too many Americans have grown too comfortable with abortion's terrible reality. For that as well, we have Roe to thank.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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