Kermit Gosnell – Baby Killer or Public Servant?

Because he was brought up today in a comment on an older post, let’s talk about Dr. Kermit Gosnell.

Gosnell is the doctor currently on trial in Pennsylvania on murder charges (among others)  because of  practices at his abortion clinic. In January 2011, Gosnell charged with eight counts of murder resulting from gross medical malpractice in treatment of patients at his clinics. The eight victims of his alleged murders were seven infants said to have been killed after being born alive during attempted abortions, and one adult patient who was administered an overdose of painkillers during an abortion.

Medical malpractice is the action of medical providers that intentionally or negligently injure or kill a person in that medical professional’s care. From all accounts I have found and read, Dr. Gosnell is at the very least guilty of egregious and frequent medical malpractice.

However, the comment invoked him in the context, apparently, of a discussion on abortion. Happy Madison said,

Kermit Gosnell is:

A) An American horror story, worthy to be counted amongst the most brutal of serial killers,

- OR -

B) A good doctor doing his job for the poor and helpless who is being treated unfairly by the anti-choice zealots.


Glodson pointed out that an abortion can’t happen once there has been a live birth. If Dr. Gosnell and his staff failed at an abortion and delivered a living baby, then killed it, the charge is not “illegal abortion,” it’s “murder.”

Delighted, Happy Madison posted:


Now: What’s the difference between a late-term abortion, performed one hour before the “thing” passes through the vagina (being “born”), and snipping the spinal cord after it has entered into the world” What difference does it make?

Where is the line that separates an ethical abortion from an unethical one? Why should Kermie be considered “unethical?”

With his exclamation of “Score!” Happy Madison blatantly identified himself as a troll. Lovely. I can see the point of having this debate if there is truly a question. In fact, the only reason I am willing to bring this topic to a new post rather than allowing it to remain buried in last week’s comments is because I can see that some people may not really see the difference in Gosnell’s conduct and that of any other abortion services provider.  We sometimes forget that there are freethinking, rational people who do not see the difference. It’s a topic worth discussion.

Gosnell is a horror story.

The mistreatment and maltreatment reported by patients and even his own staff is hair-raising. Patients who change their minds about having an abortion, even if their feet are already in the stirrups, must be respected and treated with dignity. Unless the procedure has already progressed beyond a point of no return, it should stop immediately. This is true of any elective procedure, whether it is wart removal, plastic surgery, abortion, or hip replacement.

My stomach lurches to think of a 15 year old girl who changes her mind on the table being physically restrained and the abortion performed anyway.

When I hear of bags of aborted fetuses stuffed into a refrigerator, I want to vomit.

When I hear of patients infected with STDs because a doctor used unsterilized instruments on them, I want to rage.

When I think of a live baby’s spine snipped with a pair of scissors, I am furious.

Dr. Gosnell has been accused of all of these things. If they are true, he should never be allowed to practice medicine again. Ever. And he should go to jail.

Gosnell provided necessary services to the poor and homeless.

Why should only the rich be entitled to health services? Why should abortion be available to wealthy patients, but not to poor ones? In this respect, Dr. Gosnell did indeed provide a necessary and desirable service. His method of purveying it, though, apparently left a lot to be desired.

Women determined to abort the fetuses they are carrying will do so, one way or another. They should be able to do it in a safe, sterile environment that will prevent their own death or incapacity. This was where Dr. Gosnell failed. The women who sought treatment from him got rid of their unwanted pregnancies, but apparently often did so at the cost of their own health and safety.

Gosnell is a symptom of a broken health care system. He is the poster child for why abortion services need to be safe, sterile, and sensibly regulated – not over-regulated so that only wealthy women can afford them.

Late Term Abortions for the Poor

When abortion is too expensive for a woman to be able to afford early in her pregnancy – when it takes her too much time to come up with the expense of resolving the problem of an unwanted pregnancy, she is forced to wait to abort the pregnancy. The longer she has to wait, the closer to viability or even to term she must have that abortion. By making abortion difficult to come by and expensive, we ensure that poor women must wait longer than wealthy ones to have abortions. We create the problem that a viper like Gosnell can take advantage of.

Elective late term abortions are not unheard of, even if they are rare. If a woman has to wait beyond the point of viability, but is still determined to end her pregnancy, she will still do so. And as long as it remains difficult and illegal for her to do so, she will accomplish her goal illegally. Outlawing late term abortions will not stop them. They are rare even without the legal restrictions. Women who are able to end unwanted pregnancies as soon as they can. They don’t wait for the opportunity to kill a baby.

When a “Baby” is not a Baby

Viability – the ability of the fetus to live outside the womb – is the measure the Supreme Court uses to determine the point at which the states may restrict abortions. Prior to viability the fetus cannot survive without its natural life support system – a woman. The point of viability is not a clear, bright line for every developing fetus. Some fetuses delivered earlier may live, while some delivered later may not. Medical advances have made it more likely that younger, smaller fetuses can live if their families choose to exercise those so-called heroic measures.

Furthermore, after a fetus is born alive – that is, after it becomes a baby at the magic moment of birth – certain rules go into effect. Those rules allow us to remove terminally ill, dying, doomed, and comatose from the medical interventions keeping them alive. There is no legal requirement that heroic measures be taken for anyone, regardless of how long they have been breathing.

Why should there be a legal requirement that life support systems must stay in place simply because of the short length of time since conception?

A fetus does not become a baby until it is separated from its mother and living on its own, even if “living on its own” means that some degree of medical intervention is necessary. No one condones severing the spinal cord of an already-born baby who otherwise is healthy and able to survive. If the news reports of the testimony at Kermit Gosnell’s trial is accurate, he may have killed healthy babies – not fetuses.

There is a difference.


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About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at