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.