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The real Kermit Gosnell story? Misogyny

When abortion is illegal and underground, it is more dangerous - and unregulated, argues Filipovic.

Last Modified: 16 Apr 2013 06:47
Jill Filipovic

Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives.
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The problem with the entire Gosnell case and the media storm around it comes down to sexism: sexism in health care access and sexism in whose voices are heard in the media [AFP]

According to angry pro-life activists, the left media hates babies so much that it refuses to cover the case of Kermit Gosnell, a "doctor" in Pennsylvania accused of performing illegal abortions. The Grand Jury report is gruesome, with Gosnell accused of operating a horror show, killing infants and at least one woman, and maiming many others. "It's not your fault" if you haven't heard about the Gosnell accusations, said Fox News analyst Kirsten Powers in a USA Today column, because "there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page". Male writers at mainstream publications followed suit, implying that the lack of coverage was part of a pro-choice left-wing cover-up.  

If there was a pro-choice left-wing cover-up, it was a pretty shoddy one. After all, feminist and pro-choice writers covered Gosnell extensively when the story first broke in 2010 and in 2011 when the Grand Jury report detailing Gosnell's alleged crimes was filed. Coverage came from Katha Pollitt in the Nation, Amanda Marcotte in Slate, Kate Harding in Salon, Margaret Hartman and Erin Gloria Ryan in Jezebel, Akiba Solomon in Colorlines, Lori Adelman in NBC's the Grio, Michelle Goldberg in the Daily Beast, and dozens of other pieces in smaller publications and on blogs, including yours truly. We all condemned him in strong terms, using phrases like "horror show", "house of horrors" and "butcher", and detailed the accusations.   

The mainstream media also covered the case. CNN, Time, the New York Times, NPR, CBS, the Washington Post and dozens of other outlets all featured the charges against Gosnell in early 2011. Then in April, the court issued a gag order, barring attorneys in the case from speaking to the media - a fairly common practice, especially in high-profile criminal trials. The trial commenced a few weeks ago, and, as is standard practice, local news outlets have covered the play-by-play. Once a verdict is handed down, there is little doubt that mainstream publications will again dedicate stories and segments to the case. But until then, without access to the players in the case and having already detailed the allegations and evidence, there simply isn't much to report.  

Make abortion legal and accessible

Nonetheless, anti-abortion advocates are crying foul, first claiming that no one covered Gosnell at all, and now wondering why large media outlets are not detailing the day-by-day of a trial in state court. A small handful of male writers who apparently did not read their female colleagues' extensive coverage of the issue and could not be bothered to run a Google news search brought the anti-choice claims hook, line and sinker. And now the broader media narrative is: "No one covered Gosnell because pro-choicers were afraid of bad press about abortion." Never mind it was pro-choice writers who so thoroughly wrote about the case when it broke, and if male journalists who rarely read or cover reproductive health issues did not hear about it, perhaps the fault lies with their own myopia.  

The lessons of Gosnell's house of horrors are clear: women in the US need access to good health care, including abortion care [AP]

The truth about the Gosnell case is that there are not two "sides": Everyone agrees that if the allegations are true, they are beyond horrific, and Gosnell should spend a whole lot of time in jail. Where pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ is in our assessment of how to prevent future Gosnells. The pro-life solution is to outlaw abortion entirely. While that may sound like a reasonable response to a case where a doctor committed infanticide under the guise of abortion, it is worth pointing out that what Gosnell did is already illegal. That is why he is on trial for it.  

Outlawing abortion across the board would mean thousands more Gosnells. Legal abortion is in fact one of the safest medical procedures around. But when abortion is illegal and underground, it is more dangerous. It is unregulated. And while there are some caring providers offering illegal abortions around the world, there are also predatory ones seeking to capitalise on the fact that women, throughout all of history, have needed to end pregnancies and will often go to great lengths to do so.  

Want to prevent more Gosnells? Make sure abortion is safe, legal and accessible. The women who visited Gosnell's office were largely low-income and of colour. The later-than-legal abortions and infant murders that Gosnell is accused to perpetrating were performed on women with few resources and few options. No one wants to have an abortion late in their pregnancy. But thanks to efforts from anti-abortion activists, many insurance companies do not cover abortion procedures. Medicaid, which helps to provide health coverage to low-income Americans, won't cover abortion. 

Low-income women who need to terminate pregnancies are on their own to figure out how to fund the procedure. While they are saving up the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars that an abortion can cost, the clock is ticking. By the time they have enough money, it may be too late for a legal procedure. Low-income women and women of colour are also less likely to have access to things like affordable contraception, which help prevent unintended pregnancy in the first place. Again, you can thank pro-life actions against family planning funding, Planned Parenthood and birth control access for those gaps.  

Gosnell preyed on those vulnerable women. The solution is not to make more women vulnerable. It is to deal with the factors that create that vulnerability.  

As Lori Adelman detailed in her piece about Gosnell more than two years ago: "If you thought that racially segregated doctor's offices were done away with in the 1960s, get ready to feel like you just stepped out of a time machine." The American health care system is deeply segregated, with women of colour receiving sub-standard care at astounding rates. Gosnell allegedly treated white patients better, since he thought they were more likely to file complaints. And many of the women butchered by Gosnell were there entirely because of conservative laws that made it impossible for them to access abortion care earlier in their pregnancies.  

Which is why the "pro-life" claims of concern for Gosnell's victims ring so hollow. For pro-lifers, this is an abortion story, and they are using it to argue that abortion should be outlawed - not taking the logical step to realise that Gosnell's clinic is exactly what happens when abortion is outlawed or inaccessible. They are not lamenting the lack of media coverage because any such lack of coverage actually exists. They are claiming a lack of media coverage as a way to brow-beat mainstream media sources into covering the issue with their particular frame.  

If you thought that racially segregated doctor's offices were done away with in the 1960s, get ready to feel like you just stepped out of a time machine.

Lori Adelman, writer 

Sexism in health care access

It is not news that anti-choice leaders lie to get what they want. The same people who are claiming, against all evidence, that there has been no Gosnell coverage also regularly make such truth-challenged claims as Chinese people eat babies, abortion causes breast cancer, a pregnancy is never a threat to a pregnant woman's life, Obama supports infanticide and birth control alternately does not work or kills babies, among others. These are the same people who stalk and harass clinic workers, pose as abortion clinic workers and lie to pregnant women, which they justify if it suits their "pro-life" cause. The folks raising a ruckus over the supposed lack of Gosnell media coverage are notorious liars and frothing ideologues, including Jill Stanek, writers at breitbart.com and Michelle Malkin

These are not honest actors. They are not writers or activists with integrity or good reputations. They have proven themselves willing, over and over again, to tell outright lies in furtherance of their narrow worldview. And yet when they lied about the media coverage of Gosnell, otherwise responsible writers at legitimate publications ate it up and furthered that narrative.  

The problem with the entire Gosnell case and the media storm around it comes down to sexism: sexism in health care access and sexism in whose voices are heard in the media. If women's bodies were not so intensely politicised - if we did not live a culture that believes women should be punished for having sex, and are not entitled to control our own reproductive capacities - abortion would be treated like any other medical procedure. Bad clinics would be shut down, because there would not be shame in reporting them. Procedures could be done at most medical centres, instead of relegated to dedicated, under-funded and politically imperiled clinics. Women would not have to spend months scraping up funding for a medical procedure. Kermit Gosnell simply could not operate in a country with solidly pro-choice laws.  

Similarly, the current media narrative that "no one covered this case" would not exist in a universe where male journalists treated women's health issues as simply health issues, and read their female colleagues' health care writing. Assuming that if you did not see it, it must not exist is not good journalism. Neither is taking at face value allegations made by sources that have proven unreliable and untrustworthy.  

The lessons of Gosnell's house of horrors are clear: women in the US need access to good health care, including abortion care. Just like outlawing abortion, stigmatising it and making it unavailable for low-income and rural women does not make abortion go away; it just makes it dangerous and unregulated. The lessons from the Gosnell media criticisms are similarly obvious: Do not trust known liars with an agenda. 

Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives. She holds a JD from NYU School of Law. 

Follow her on Twitter: @JillFilipovic

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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