Breaking the silence on abortion doctors like Gosnell

Sometimes other people do such fine GetReligion-esque media criticism that we just like to point at it and then walk away.

So that’s precisely what I’m going to do with Melinda Henneberger’s piece “Are there more abortion doctors like Kermit Gosnell? And do we want to know?” that ran online at the Washington Post. What I like about her criticism is that she puts the best construction on what her journalistic colleagues are doing while also asking hard questions — she combines nice and tough to great effect.

She begins by noting some of the revelations in the new undercover videos released by pro-life activists this week. (Quick note: you know that the Gosnell media scandal changed media coverage even slightly since these videos received some coverage here and here.) Then she wonders why the National Abortion Federation didn’t report some of what it found when it inspected Kermit Gosnell’s unsanitary clinic (“If what she observed — a padlock on an emergency exit in a part of the clinic where women were left alone overnight, for example — was so far outside the norm, then why didn’t it inspire a single phone call to the state, according to the grand jury report?”).

She criticizes media coverage of abortion clinics:

Other such criminal clinics have only made the news as local stories, while most mainstream abortion coverage details threats to abortion rights rather than to women themselves.

Even when a New York woman died after a third-trimester abortion performed in Maryland in February, the coverage questioned not the care that led to her death, but the breach of privacy she suffered when antiabortion activists publicized the case.

Henneberger notes that there is an egregious double standard:

There is certainly no shortage of outraged attention to the “personhood” movement, which would define life from the moment of conception as worthy of protection under the law. I don’t know how such a law might be enforced without the kind of humiliating monitoring China used to uphold its one-child policy, and the proof that it’s opposed even by most Americans who consider themselves pro-life is that it can’t even pass in Mississippi.

But where’s the coverage of extreme views at the other end of the spectrum? Of, for instance, the jaw-dropping testimony of Planned Parenthood official Alisa LaPolt Snow? When asked by a Florida lawmaker what kind of medical care the organization thinks a child who somehow survives a late-term abortion should get, Snow suggested that even then, the child’s fate is a woman’s right to choose.

That’s how our president voted as an Illinois state senator, too, even after his stated concerns about the “born alive” bill were addressed. Though there is a lot of room for disagreement on when life does begin, most of us think viability is a pretty clear, bright line.

Not Planned Parenthood, though, which hasn’t disavowed anything Snow said. And not the Bronx counselor caught on tape, who warns the woman sitting in front of her that no matter what happens, she mustn’t go to the hospital, where if she were to give birth to a live child, that baby might be given medical care.

It’s great that the Post allows opinions such as these online. But it’s time for the news coverage to improve and ask tough questions as well. These issues are far too important to be left to the opinion pages.

These news stories about abortion clinics could be hooked to some of what the pro-life activists found or they could be less related. For instance, after I wrote on the Gosnell coverage, an anesthesiologist wrote to me wrote to me, wondering why the news never shows what happens in an abortion the same way news shows look at other surgeries. It is fascinating that at a time when we can see into the womb better than ever before, there’s a veil over that one particular procedure. And such an important procedure.

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  • Mark Baddeley

    It is a good essay, and I’m glad its in the public domain – kudos to [i]Post[/i] for printing it (hoping that’s the right html code for this site or that’s going to look awkward – any chance some basic html codes be listed near the box for posting a comment?).

    Along with the desire to see more of the Gosnell case reported on, rather than the lack of reporting dissected in the editorials, I would also like to see more of these editorials issued by people of minimal pro-life sympathies. It is a testimony to mainstream journalism’s intellectual liberalism (small ‘l’) to have pieces like this that break with the newsroom consensus. But an even better testimony would be to have a working journalist write an article something like this, which demonstrates an ability to enter *sympathetically* into the mind of people who find this story newsworthy and horrific, and who could articulate that in a non-confrontational engagement with them – seeing that such an outlook seems not to be the case among working journalists generally from the continuing lack of reporting on the case and comments such as that by Slate’s Will Saletan http://twitchy.com/2013/04/29/soulless-slates-saletan-worse-than-infanticide-exposing-it-snitches/

    It seems to me that until we have journalists who can write editorials that articulate positions with which they themselves don’t hold and even passionately disagree with with an accuracy, nuance and sympathy such that the holders of those views can recognize themselves in it, it is very difficult for them to approach any kind of journalistic ideal other than ‘journalism-as-advocacy-for-my-political-tribe’. Being able to articulate a view sympathetically and accurately doesn’t stop you from still rejecting such views and being critical of them. All it stops you doing is seeing the person holding the view as an irrational monster. And as journalism is about reporting on people (few of whom are either saints or monsters), the ability to get inside their skin and see the world from their perspective *sympathetically* would have to be about as basic a journalistic attribute as you can get.

    • Darren Blair

      Mark –

      Brackets are VB (Visual Basic) code.

      HTML code uses .

      If Patheos uses HTML mark-up, then this line of text should appear in Italics when I go to post it.

      • Darren Blair

        OK – For HTML code, you need the little diamond-looking things that you get when you do “SHIFT+,” and “SHIFT+.”.

        • Mark Baddeley

          excellent – thanks Darren. I think I’ve been thrown by the fact that some sites refer to VB as HTML – I never realized there was such a thing as VB, even though I knew that sometimes I had to use [] and other places . Thanks muchly.

  • John Pack Lambert

    So how long until the Washington Post will allow pro-lifers to self identify the way they chose to do so?

  • dalea

    If the question is ‘how many Gosnell type situations are there?’, then that should be answerable. The number of abortion facilities is finite, from the articles we learn that these places advertize; so an enterprising reporter could go through the yellow pages, make a list and go visit the clinics. Posing as a potential client would allow access enough to get a rough idea of cleanliness etc. Then it should be possible to check out the professional standing and licensure of the personnel. The whole thing would require some digging, but nothing extraordinary. It should also be possible to search Fire Department records on inspections and possibly ambulance calls to each clinic. A competant reporter should be able to do this in a few weeks.

  • FW Ken

    The relevant question, however, is how many women have died, been maimed, or become sterile through the procedures in these places. In addition to the suggestions above, ambulance and emergency room records should be examined. That would take a combined effort by journalists and law enforcement.

    • dalea

      The Centers for Disease Control found 12 deaths attributable to abortion in the most recent year fully reported. I recall it is 2010, but could be mistaken. Their findings are based on autopsies, newspaper obituaries and physician reports. Given an estimate 1,200,000 abortions that year, that is a rate of one per hundred thousand or 0.00001. This includes all deaths that can be medically attributed to abortions, both legal and illegal. The CDC is unable to distinguish between the two for a number of technical reasons. There is absolutely no secret about the number of abortion related deaths, the facts are clearly laid out at the CDC’s website.

      IF a project involves medical records, medical experts are required, not ambulance drivers and journalists. HIPPA protects medical records from examination and publicization. In the case of reportable conditions, raw numbers are known with some geographical data are available through the CDC. Sterility and ‘maiming’ are to the best of my knowlege not reportable conditions, so there would be no public data on the subject. All the ambulance data will tell if where the ambulance went and if there was a transport to a medical facility.

      This question keeps coming up here. Which seems strange since the data is readily available, easily accessed, of very high quality and quite clear. Just requires an ability to read statistics. At the CDC site, there is a section on abortion that explains all the data. Further information is in a report called something like The Mortality and Morbidity Report. Why journalists don’t do this simple work I can’t understand. It would be fairly simple to explain the actual situation.

      • dalea

        The CDC’s Abortion Surveillance Report is at:

        http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/Data_Stats/Abortion.htm

        The Mortality and Morbidity Report dealing with abortion is here (PDF):

        http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6108.pdf

        The 1.2 million figure I gave was based on an estimate since the CDC numbers do not include California’s abortions, as well as several other states. However, the death rate is determined by examining the deaths of all women of childbearing age. Death is a reportable condition nati9n wide, abotion is not.

        The information is there for an enterprising reporter.

  • FW Ken

    You accept these numbers at face value; I don’t. From what I’ve read, Tom Ridge, as governor of Pennsylvania, abrogated inspection of abortion clinics in the 90s, which leads to the conclusion that data from that state, at least, is unreliable.

    • dalea

      This is where knowing how statistics are collected becomes important. The number and rate of deaths is knowable as death is a reportable condition. Clinic inspections have nothing to do with reported deaths. For women of child bearing age, 15 to 44, a medical professional must pronounce the death and submit this information to local authorities. The authorities then issue a death certificate. Without the death certificate, there can be no interment or cremation. Usually, if there is any question there will be an inquest or autopsy. All of this information must be submitted to the CDC and state authorities. In addition, the CDC monitors obituaries and other public reports to assure that all deaths are being reported. And to find clusters of deaths that may point to an infection or environmental hazard, as was the case with AIDS and Legionairres Disease.

      This is where a reporter with statistical knowlege comes in. And some serious investigative reporting appears needed if there are lots of people who question the numbers. Are deaths being properly reported? Or are there large numbers of deaths from one cause that slip through the system? If there are, what would have to be going on and how is it being covered up? What has to happen for this to be the case? This would make an excellent investigation.

      Hint for enterprising reporter. This is an inventory question. Opening inventory plus purchases minus sales minus slippage equals closing inventory. Population of child bearing age plus population growth since last census minus deaths reported minus slippage equals current population. Step one is get the census data and add population growth for current population. Step two is to look at the deaths for this group. Exclude deaths from accidents and crime, which should be a majority. Then go into the remaining ones. Exclude deaths from chronic conditions. Which should leave a very few deaths that might be abortion related. Get a pathologist to go over these ones. How many reporters are capable of such investigation?

  • Chris

    ” It seems to me that until we have journalists who can write editorials that articulate positions…”

    I don’t want journalists writing editorials, articulate or otherwise. I want them to report news, including relevant context and background. Then I can make MY OWN informed opinions..

    • Mark Baddeley

      Well, as I don’t see editorials and reporting news as incompatible with each other – both have a place in journalism – I’d like journalists to report news when they are reporting news, and to produce editorials that display the ‘small L’ liberalism qualities needed to be able to report the news properly when they are writing editorials. I don’t see any particular virtue in always keeping all journalists from op-ed pieces, so I think they can do both.

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