So sad, so affecting -- the cases of various newborns whose lives a Philadelphia jury found Dr. Kermit Gosnell to have taken through quick, deft application of scissors. The district attorney called Gosnell "a monster. Any doctor who cuts into the necks, severing the spinal cords of living, breathing babies, who would survive with proper medical attention, is a murderer and a monster." He kept jars full of baby body parts around his filthy clinic. He served, if you call it serving, a clientele of poor and minority-group women -- at least two of whom died from his ministrations. A judge last week sentenced him to three life terms in prison.
Yes, and so ... ? Having digested the charges and proof in a case closely watched across the land, by pro-life and pro-choice people alike, we ... what exactly? Besides tell the Gallup Poll that our views on abortion remain pretty much what they've been for years?
A "Children, cover your eyes!" moment looms. Let's hustle the little chicks and ourselves with them past a scene bereft of humanity and hope. To focus on what happened for years in Gosnell's abortion mills -- chiefly, filth and murder -- would be to look at abortion not as liberation but as horror.
We seem as a people not to want to do that. As Gallup reported a few days before Gosnell's conviction, "despite the news that Gosnell may have murdered newborns" -- "may have" nothing; he did -- in the course of performing late-term abortions, public attitudes on abortion are essentially unchanged."
To put it another way, 26 percent think abortion should be legal under all circumstances, whereas 20 percent would ban it under all circumstances. The remaining 52 percent, well, they're somewhere in between -- 38 percent favorable to letting abortion take place "in a few," unspecified circumstances, 13 percent favorable to legality "most" of the time. It's pretty much the same finding Gallup has reported since the century began, "except for a brief period between 2005 and 2006," when opinion titled toward the pro-choice side.
It would seem half of us continue ambivalent, to one degree or another, on the hardest moral question of our times. And no wonder: to look hard and unblinkingly at abortion -- no covering of eyes, no turning of heads -- is to see Dr. Harold Gosnell hard at work with his scissors.
What separates Gosnell, the "house of horrors" doctor -- to quote a phrase widely used concerning his clinic -- from, shall we say, his colleagues in more sanitary settings: fetuses neatly done away with, beds and corridors kept spic-and-span? No principle of any rationality separates Gosnell from these others. The principle that informs them all -- ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court -- is the principle that an unwanted baby enjoys no inherent or implied right to life. Such a child is an object -- a mere "product" of conception, not human at all. Sliced up in the womb or outside it.
Gosnell simply went further in his assumptions that did his more antiseptic colleagues. If the underlying assumption about abortion is that we have to get rid of the kid, getting rid of him by any means at hand meets the purpose of the whole thing. It's crude, of course, to cut the spinal cord with scissors, but doesn't it get the basic job done? Gosnell must surely have asked himself this question. If so, we see how he answered. And why not? Abortion blurs, not to mention eradicates, the moral sensibilities.
The civilization of the West centuries ago turned its face against the selective practices of paganism -- this life lower on the scale of human values than that one; hardly worth noticing, far less preserving. Comes now Harold Gosnell, who heard the new music afloat in the land; who liked it, danced to it with joy and rapture. Harder and faster he spun around the floor, exceeding the performances of colleagues slower, less intoxicated than himself.
The face of abortion as medical and moral mode is the face of Harold Gosnell.