From the start, both sides of the reproductive-rights debate have equally seen Kermit Gosnell as a prime example of everything that is wrong with abortion in America. Seen through the pro-choice lens, the problems are rampant inequality, which makes it difficult or impossible for many to afford abortions, and burdensome regulations that constrict women’s options. Seen through the pro-life looking glass, the image of Gosnell blithely severing babies’ spines just proves what anti-abortion activists were already sure was true: that every abortion clinic is a bloodstained horror; every doctor willing to perform the procedure, a monster.
For months, reading the pro-life and pro-choice coverage of the case side-by-side has been jarring enough to make a person seasick. It’s hard to believe one man could so embody two diametrically opposite things. This was never clearer than yesterday, when a Philadelphia jury found Gosnell guilty of three counts of first-degree murder, of three fetuses he failed to abort in utero and then killed with scissors, and one count of involuntary manslaughter, of a woman his unqualified staff killed with a sedative overdose. Immediately, the left and the right proclaimed verdicts of their own—in both cases, victory.
“Justice was served to Kermit Gosnell today and he will pay the price for the atrocities he committed,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. “We hope that the lessons of the trial do not fade with the verdict. Anti-choice politicians, and their unrelenting efforts to deny women access to safe and legal abortion care, will only drive more women to back-alley butchers like Kermit Gosnell.
Eric Ferrero of Planned Parenthood Federation of America had a similar take: “This case has made clear that we must have and enforce laws that protect access to safe and legal abortion, and we must reject misguided laws that would limit women's options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell.”
Meanwhile, last week, the Guttmacher Institute touted a recent study in the journal Women’s Health Issues that finds a full half of women who get abortions rely on the help of others to cover the cost, which averaged $470 in the first trimester in 2009. In this light, the logic of Gosnell’s business model—compromising his patients’ health so he could offer procedures for far less than the going rate while raking in the profits—is disturbingly clear.
Across the great divide, the anti-abortion camp also felt vindicated by the verdict. “Gosnell verdict is a step closer to fundamentally restoring America's destiny as an exceptional nation with the unalienable right to life,” tweeted Sarah Palin.
Among the first off the block was Washington Post political blogger Jennifer Rubin, predicting the verdict would lead the Supreme Court to restrict late-term abortion—and, of course, that it spelled trouble for President Obama. “In pulling back the curtain on a practice many Americans consider barbaric, the Gosnell trial will, I believe, have long-term implications for the abortion debate.”
Rubin, and many others, took the verdict as an opportunity to accuse the liberal media, one last time, of playing down the case because of gross political bias. “The coverage of the verdict by every major news outlet stands in contrast to their ignoring the story until conservative media hounded them into covering it,” she snipped. (Never mind that the “liberal media” had in fact been trying to parse the implications of Gosnell since the story broke in 2011.)
On Red State, RNC Chairman Reince Preibus said “there is no excusing those in the media that failed to cover this trial. … That’s dangerous: If the public is unaware of the Kermit Gosnells, how can we prevent these appalling crimes?”
Of course, the central thread through conservative commentary yesterday was the same argument abortion opponents have been using to turn Gosnell into a rallying cry for anti-abortion legislation across the country: to allow abortion is to sanction Gosnell. “The question that should haunt us now is not how many victims Gosnell killed, which we will never know, but how many more Gosnells there are in our country,” wrote Ramesh Ponnuru on Bloomberg View. Fox News’ Manny Alvarez ran a piece with the ominous headline, “Let the Gosnell Verdict Be a Warning to Others.”
It’s far from impossible that there are other Gosnell-like practitioners of abortion out there. Philadelphia isn’t the only city where poverty and hardline politics mix. But when the pro-life movement says there are others, what it really means is that every abortion doctor is guilty like Gosnell. That’s the message of an open letter signed by more than three-dozen pro-life leaders this April.
“Although only one abortionist is being prosecuted today, the entire abortion industry is on trial,” it reads. “Let the history books be written that these are the last days of legalized abortion on demand. We will press with all our collective might to expose the gruesome activity of every abortion provider and bring them to legal accountability, just as is happening now with Kermit Gosnell and his accomplices.”
Gosnell remains in prison, awaiting the sentencing phase of his trial, which is set to begin a week from today. Under Pennsylvania law, he is eligible for the death penalty, or for life in prison with no chance of parole. Meanwhile, the reaction to his case is another nail in the coffin of the discourse over reproductive rights in this country. Nothing could have more fully shown that if the pro-choice camp is living on Mars, pro-lifers are living on Jupiter; or actually, they inhabit two wholly different universes. It’s hard to see a way forward when no matter what you say, no one’s in shouting distance to hear you.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an Editorial Assistant at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter at @ncaplanbricker.