Abortion and the Banality of Evil

Not since Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann has there been a more provocative analysis of evil as that provided in Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer’s detailing the crimes, trial, and personality of Dr. Kermit Gosnell -- Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer (Regnery Publishing), 

“Banality” was the word Arendt chose for Eichmann’s bureaucratic officiousness in the Third Reich’s “Ministry of Death.” That term, however, hardly fits the acts of a self-assured abortionist who regularly snipped the spinal cords of babies born alive, kept infants’ feet as trophies, ran an illegal prescription drug mill, and hired assistants who were totally unqualified to perform medical duties in a filthy, ramshackle facility. But what’s surprising about Gosnell is that his greed and macabre callousness existed alongside an often cheerful disposition that accompanied various acts of charity. Consequently, Gosnell had a good reputation among much of the poor community he both served and exploited.

Additionally, the authors’ prison interview with Gosnell gives the impression of a self-confident individual with at least moderate intellectual and artistic talent -- a man with a positive outlook on the future who enjoyed traveling abroad, namedropping (he was a friend of slain late-term abortionist, George Tiller), and playing Chopin on the piano. Nevertheless, Gosnell clearly overestimated his professional and intellectual abilities as indicated by his desire to represent himself in the trial at which he was ultimately found guilty on three counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison -- a sentence the doctor is confident will one day be overturned.

The term “banality” does comport, however, with the lassitude and indifference displayed by Pennsylvania’s abortion-oversight bureaucracy -- whose officials were all too willing to forego inspections, let gross violations slide, and dismiss even complaints associated with the deaths of two women Gosnell treated. Pennsylvania’s pro-choice Republican governor, Tom Ridge, comes in for special criticism by the authors for his “hands-off” policy vis-à-vis facility inspections -- though they also note that the state’s bureaucratic malfeasance extended well beyond Ridge’s tenure.  

Accordingly, Gosnell’s late-term abortion house of horrors was exposed not by folks charged with the responsibility of making abortions “safe,” but rather by a cop investigating the source of some illegal prescription drugs. The unsanitary conditions in Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society clinic -- e.g. cat feces, urine stench, milk jugs stuffed with aborted baby parts -- raised enough concerns to begin a probe of Gosnell’s “official” practice.

The death of another patient opened additional investigatory doors. This immigrant from Bhutan (mislabeled “the Indian woman” by Gosnell) had the misfortune of being heavily anesthetized by one of Gosnell’s unqualified assistants who took orders over the phone from the absent doctor. Lies told by Gosnell and his staff about the treatment of Karnamaya Mongar didn’t deflect Detective Jim Wood and district attorneys from finally attempting to determine how far Gosnell had gone beyond the illegal distribution of prescription drugs.

Eventually the prosecution brought seven murder charges against Gosnell for killing live babies plus another charge for Mongar’s death. Though the practice of “snipping” the spinal cords of late-term babies was common at Gosnell’s clinic, the prosecution required clear evidence that infants long since deceased had actually been alive before being murdered. However, since there was no other logical reason for utilizing this unusual procedure on aborted fetuses, the authors estimate that Gosnell, who specialized in late-term abortions, killed “hundreds” and possibly “thousands” of live babies over the decades.

McElhinney and McAleer’s work provides an extensive account of Gosnell’s defense, presented by one of the state’s premier attorneys, Jack McMahon. McMahon’s cross examination of a prosecution witness who occasionally performed legal abortions at a prestigious hospital contains some of the most damning testimony in the book. The defense lawyer argued skillfully that there is precious little difference between what Gosnell is accused of doing to live babies at his poor community facility and the legal approach to a live fetus (i.e. baby) after an attempted abortion in an upscale hospital. In the halting words of a respected female physician, they would “just keep it warm you know. It will eventually pass.”     

The book also highlights other legal absurdities. In Pennsylvania, for example, it is legal to abort a fetus at 23 weeks and six days, even a minute before day seven, but it is a crime to carry out the same abortion a minute later -- a distinction akin to legally sucking the brain out of a baby a few inches before it exits the womb or illegally snipping its spinal cord moments later. Ironically, Gosnell, who regularly manipulated ultrasound data to fit abortions within the state’s legal limit, appears to have believed Pennsylvania permitted abortions up to 24 and a half weeks, as his incomplete and often inaccurate records regularly noted the age of late-term fetuses as 24.5 weeks.

Given the brutal nature of late-term abortions, it’s hardly surprising that our pro-choice national press devoted minimal time to Gosnell’s trial. After all, wall-to-wall coverage would doubtless raise profound questions about the morality of abortion and especially late-term abortions -- as it did with Gosnell’s pro-choice jury and the book’s once pro-choice author, Ann McElhinney. Only a prominent USA Today editorial penned by the Daily Beast’s Kirsten Powers prodded mainstream journalists into providing slightly more coverage.

This gripping and detailed book about Gosnell is a further attempt by McElhinny and McAleer to remedy that widespread media blackout. In the near future, the same husband-wife team will release a feature-length film to further publicize the largely suppressed truth about “America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer.”  

When one considers what this book reveals about the gruesome details, moral incoherence, and institutional trappings surrounding late-term abortions, it becomes easier to see how an arrogant, controlling doctor like Kermit Gosnell could continue for decades cheerfully snipping live babies’ spinal cords and committing medical malpractice on a grand scale. After all, Gosnell is precisely the type of person who would be drawn to such a macabre specialty, all the while deeming his den of depravity a service to the community.   

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California. Opinion columnist for the North County Times (1996-2012); online reviews: http://spectator.org/people/richard-kirk/all; blog: http://musingwithahammerkirk.blogspot.com/     

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