Busted Halo

Caitlin Kennell Kim, seminary grad, baby wrangler, ordinary radical, writes about the life of a convert in the Catholic Church and explores how faith and everyday life intersect.

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May 6th, 2013

Behind the Veneer

Thoughts on abortion in light of the Kermit Gosnell trial


Women’s Medical Society clinic in West Philadelphia.

Women’s Medical Society clinic in West Philadelphia.

(This post includes some graphic details from a current criminal case. It’s a bit heavier than what I usually write about for Convert-sation … but I think it’s important.)

Let’s engage in a thought experiment.

Picture two men. Both have been convicted of a crime they did not commit. They are innocent. Can you imagine them?

The first man is stripped naked. Amidst shouts and jeers, he is dragged into a public square. An angry mob surrounds him and he is caught in a terrible and unceasing deluge of stones and bricks. After an hour, his body lies broken, bloody, and lifeless. The crowd disperses. His body is thrown into a shallow, unmarked grave. He has been executed.

The second man is given a new pair of denim pants and a new blue work shirt. He meets with a licensed physician to receive a comprehensive medical exam, to give a complete medical history, and to hear an explanation of the medical procedure involved in a lethal injection. He receives a final meal of his choosing. He is offered a Valium. He is led to a sterile chamber and strapped to a gurney. A group of preselected citizens and officials watch from behind a pane of glass. The physician and a physician’s assistant enter the chamber to swab the man’s arm with an antiseptic and insert a sterile IV. At the signal of the warden, three doses of lethal chemicals are introduced into the IV. A cardiac monitor signals that the man’s heart has stopped beating. His family is allowed to claim his body and make arrangements for his burial. He has been executed.

According to Catholic teaching, some acts are intrinsically evil. In other words, no set of intentions or circumstances could justify them. Catholic moral theologians refer to these as absolute or exceptionless moral norms. Intentional killing of the innocent is such a moral norm. As Blessed Pope John Paul II explains, such a teaching often appears out of place in a culture that takes for granted the moral legitimacy of doing evil to achieve some perceived good.

Now that we’ve looked at a hypothetical case, let’s examine an issue currently dominating the news. Consider the case against the now infamous Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the abortion provider in West Philadelphia who stands accused of (among hundreds of other things) causing the death of 41-year-old mother, recent Nepalese refugee, and abortion patient Karnamaya Mongar and the murder of at least four babies born alive at the squalid Women’s Medical Society clinic the district attorney described as a “house of horrors.” With this case in mind, let’s try our experiment one more time:

Picture two women seeking abortions. Both are in their late teens. Both are in their second trimester of pregnancy. Can you imagine them?

The first woman enters a waiting room that reeks of cat urine. The carpet is stained with blood. Around her she hears the moans of heavily medicated women and the cries of those doubled over in pain. She is handed a stack of paperwork to sign. She is led to a blood-stained recliner and is given labor-inducing medication by a woman with no medical training and an eighth grade education. The same employee inserts an IV. The woman in the dirty recliner is given large doses of Demerol that is passed its expiration date. She is left alone with the other moaning women as she cries, bleeds, and drifts in and out of consciousness. Hours later, the doctor (who is not a licensed OBGYN — in fact, he failed his OBGYN residency) arrives. She is taken into a procedure room and placed on a blood-caked vinyl table. She may receive more drugs in her IV from an unsupervised 15-year-old employee. If she is conscious enough to scream or squirm in pain the doctor yells at her and slaps her hard on the inside of her thigh. With the aid of unsterile tools, her baby is born whole and alive. The baby boy gasps for air. The doctor uses a pair of surgical scissors to cut his spinal cord at the base of his neck. His tiny, perfectly formed body is thrown in a shoebox on the dirty floor. The baby has been murdered.

The second woman enters a waiting room with soft music playing and framed art on the walls. The room is clean and tidy. She sees other women reading magazines or speaking quietly. A trained staff member helps her understand the paperwork in her chart and offers her counsel about her decision to have an abortion. She is given a clean gown and is greeted by a licensed nurse who administers labor-inducing drugs and gives her medication to help her cope with the pain. She sits on a clean recliner while two nurses periodically check the vital signs of all patients. The doctor (who is a licensed OBGYN and a respected professor at a prestigious medical school) checks in on the woman, too. He has a grandfatherly smile. She is taken into a sterile procedure room and helped onto a clean table. A licensed nurse anesthetist sedates her and monitors her breathing. A drug is injected into her baby to stop his heart. The doctor removes her baby in sections. His severed limbs are examined to make sure no part of him remains in his mother’s womb. They are placed in a red biohazard bag and disposed of as medical waste. The baby has been murdered.

The act of abortion committed in each case is identical — the extraction and death of the baby. An absolute moral norm has been violated. Yes, like the first two cases we imagined, the circumstances are vastly different. The first scenario is taken from testimony in the Kermit Gosnell case. The second may be taken from any of one of the most reputable abortion clinics in the country and is demonstrative of best practices in abortion care.

The point is that what disgusts us — thinkers on both sides of the abortion issue — about the Gosnell case is something inherent to abortion … namely, the violent death of infants. We, as a nation, have also expressed our outrage at Gosnell for making millions of dollars by preying on poor women, for setting up shop in a neighborhood that is predominately populated by people of color and recent immigrants, and for treating the remains of babies with such blatant disrespect. The thing is that behind the veneer of medical degrees and framed watercolor paintings and strict compliance with state law, every clinic — even the “best” clinic — is guilty of the same offenses. Like the inmate in our initial thought experiment whose arm was swabbed with an antiseptic before receiving lethal drugs, the “good,” clean, reputable clinics give us a feeling of orderly procedure carried out by properly credentialed professionals. They lend the whole affair a sense of normalcy and tolerability.

The Gosnell case has stripped away the veneer. Abortion has been dragged from the darkness of the willful ignorance of an entire nation into the glaring light of public moral scrutiny. The brutality, racism, classism, and despair have been laid bare. The time is now for a public deliberation on abortion that has nothing to do with slogans or talking points. We need to recognize the vast chasm that divides us. We need to address the national crisis of conscience evident in the disparate pro-choice response to the moral issues raised by the Gosnell case. We need to take up the hard stuff many of us would rather avoid when it comes to abortion. The hard stuff about race and class. The hard stuff about why many of us find it morally acceptable to kill a baby inside his mother’s womb, but find it completely reprehensible for the same act to occur moments later outside the womb. The hard stuff about access to quality prenatal care and child care. The hard stuff about societal attitudes concerning sex and family and what makes a person a person. The veneer has been worn off. The time is now. May God grant us courage.

The Author : Caitlin Kennell Kim
Caitlin Kennell Kim is a full-time baby wrangler, writer, and ponderer of all things theological. She earned her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She currently lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and their four small children.
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  • Ygret

    I don’t have a lot of time but I think the author should make a correction.

    I read the article she linked to where she gets the facts of the Gosnell case and it states that the babies Gosnell had to kill outside of the womb were in fact third trimester abortions – which is not legal anywhere. A second trimester fetus cannot live outside the mother’s body.

    I find this “oversight” on her part disturbing as she emphasizes her desire for her idea of an open, honest conversation about abortion.

  • jim

    Good luck. Remember the national conversation on guns after the sandy hook-aurora colorado-travvon martin-ad infinitum tragedies? Republicans in congress, bought and paid for by the gun lobby rejected all extremely popular proposals. A ‘national’ conversaton after one outlier abortion case has less chance of happening than the author has of becoming pope. Nice to hope for, but naive.
    The conversation that does need to happen-perhaps just as unlikely-is within the anti-abortion movement. Abortion has been condemned since the Didache-19 centuries ago and still it’s a common occurrence. Maybe a change in tactics is necessary? But any change will risk upsetting big buck donors, and the Republican party. I wish you well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mary.pearlman.12 Mary Pearlman

    When abortion was illegal, women still had them – we just didn’t talk about it out loud very much. That’s part of the truth we don’t like to talk about too. It is indeed a complex and awful subject that has many sides and issues to consider. I too pray that the Holy Spirit will convert hearts and minds and help us all to know and follow Jesus, and love each other.

  • Mo

    I wish I could agree 100% with the author or Jennifer and Drew, but this is an issue I struggle with everyday. I am pro-life and I try to love that philosophy everyday, but the guilt spread by pro-choice, media, and so-called feminists is hard to ignore. I hate that abortion has become a legal and political rather than moral topic, but I’m not sure the best way to change it. It’s easy to say start a conversation, protest, vote against anyone who is pro-choice etc., but will that really change those whose ideology has become such a part of their life? It’s not that simple anymore. Sometimes I think the best course of action is to focus on social justice (something mentioned in this article) and hope that a conversion or change in morality will follow. I know many who read this are thinking that this is some sort of cop-out, maybe it is, I don’t know; all I know is a do my best and hope God and Jesus will guide me to the right path.

  • Drew

    I agree with the author and with Jennifer. The Gosnell case has ripped the mask off of the pro-choice movement. When MLK Jr. worked for civil rights, the defenders of the status quo urged him to postpone his movement. Society wasn’t ready for what he had to say. Let’s have more dialogue and chatter. And meanwhile let’s turn a blind eye to blatant injustice. The pro-choice movement and those in the ambiguous middle are guardians of a status quo that is evil and needs to be changed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jennifer.c.moeller Jennifer Christian Moeller

    Kristina, you can’t restore humanity to something that never had it. You’re engaging in the same schizophrenic pro-choice rationalization this article says needs to stop. It is truly sad the grip people can allow ideology to have upon their minds, to the point where they make themselves unable to see simple truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/k.heuck.knubel Kristina Heuck Knubel

    Good article–and yes, we need to have these conversations. We need to not sweep it under the rug. One way to do this is to have the media cover such a horrific case. Another way to deal with it is to bring back the humanity to abortion and stop distilling it down to two sides: pro-choice and pro-life. Each of these two sides ignore one half of the issue: either the mother or the unborn child. I don’t know the solution to this moral conundrum, but a conversation is a place to start.

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