Lessons from the Gosnell trial

After 10 days of deliberation, the jury tasked with weighing more than 250 charges in the capital murder trial of Kermit Gosnell handed down its verdicts today.

Gosnell has been found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder, for the deaths of three babies, and on one count of involuntary manslaughter for the death of Karnamaya Mongar, a woman who died in his clinic after an anesthesia overdose during an abortion in 2009. There are other convictions as well, including infanticide and conspiracy.

Gosnell’s trial began in late March and sparked an anti-choice frenzy – they are out to convince people that Gosnell is the reason why abortion should be outlawed.

But please, don’t be fooled. That is far from the truth of the matter.

It is true that the details of what happened in the West Philadelphia clinic operated by 72-year-old Kermit Gosnell are horrific – absolutely stomach-churning.

However, abortion itself is not the danger. The danger is the circumstances under which Gosnell was allowed to practice – unsafe, unregulated, appalling medical conditions – and the reasons why women went to an unsafe clinic and kept silent about their mistreatment.

The true lessons to be learned from the horrible clinic and Gosnell’s trial are about access and shame.


The fact is, when it comes to abortions in the country, a clinic like Gosnell’s is the exception and not the rule – but outlawing abortion entirely would quickly reverse that.

The procedures Gosnell performed were not legal abortions protected under Roe v. Wade, but rather late-term abortions past the 24-week cutoff for legal abortions in Pennsylvania. The Women’s Medical Society, his facility, wasn’t inspected for 17 years and complaints were ignored. The conditions were only discovered as the result of a federal drug raid.

These crimes did not happen because abortion is legal, rather, they happened because safe, affordable abortion wasn’t accessible and the facility and doctor were not held accountable for ensuring the medical safety of patients.

Low-income women, especially those of color, represented the majority of the patients at the Women’s Medical Society clinic. These women had limited funds and felt that they had no where else to go. They were at the last stop, the final destination. So even if Gosnell was compromising their dignity and their safety, he was also providing their escape. He was the only one providing an abortion that they could afford.

Abortion, for those who would struggle to travel to a clinic and pay for the procedure, is only as legal as their means to obtain it. South Dakota faces this reality every day as one of the four states (along with North Dakota, Arkansas and Mississippi) with only one clinic providing abortion services. Where do the women who can’t make it to a clinic, or women who can’t afford a procedure, turn? In this case, they turned to Kermit Gosnell – and he did nothing but take advantage of them and mistreat their bodies. If there had been another option for these women, maybe his clinic wouldn’t have been so busy.


In an article about Gosnell’s victims on philly.com, there is a particularly powerful quote: “Abortion, some say, carries such a stigma that they were too ashamed to report their alleged mistreatment.”

The anti-choice movement has managed to create such a stigma of shame around abortion that women are allowing themselves to be horribly mistreated and they never report it.

One patient said that she didn’t want to report what happened and be “treated like trash.”

This shame from making the medical decision of abortion is a direct result of politicizing the procedure. It draws lines that divide us and strip away empathy in favor of judgment and condemnation.

In this sense, it was Gosnell who committed the crimes, but society that forced his victims underground afterwards.

These woman, his victims, were so certain that they would be condemned for seeking an abortion that they would receive no help, no comfort and no support, even in face of this doctor’s nightmarish practices.

The acts described in the testimony for Gosnell’s trial put him and his clinic in the same column with pre-Roe v. Wade back-alley abortions. And adding to the horror of the actual operations is the fact that women felt as though Gosnell represented their only option – their last chance to affect change in their own lives.

Without access to safe, legal abortion women will compromise their safety and their dignity to find another means of terminating a pregnancy. That is what happened pre-Roe v. Wade. That is what happened in Gosnell’s clinic.

Women should never have to sacrifice their dignity or their safety to access abortion care. They should never be ashamed for making the right decision for themselves and their families – and that is exactly what the pro-choice movement is fighting for ­everyday.

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