Those who support abortion rights see Gosnell as proof of the types of horrible things that will occur if a woman’s right to be the final arbiter over her reproductive choices is curtailed by the state: Kermit Gosnell will be just one of many such tales in a post-Roe versus Wade world. Conservatives (and those others) who would deny women their reproductive rights view him as an example of why abortion should be outlawed in the United States.
By comparison, those of us who have a standing prior that abortions should be safe, legal, and widely available to all who seek them necessarily understand that a post abortion-rights world will create more Kermit Gosnells, not fewer of them.
Those who oppose a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health choices consider Kermit Gosnell as a bogeyman that embodies everything they hate about a country where abortion is legal.
Politics involves the mobilization of emotions to win over supporters in the pursuit of specific policy goals. Story-telling is one way to accomplish this goal.
For the anti-Roe vs. Wade Republican or “pro-life” advocate (“pro-life” being a type of odd newspeak that falls apart in the face of any critical inquiry) Kermit Gosnell is a ready made tale that can be easily exploited for political ends.
In the Right-wing echo chamber, the lurid details about how Kermit Gosnell performed late term abortions are the stuff of a moral panic, where the descriptions fit neatly into pre-existing beliefs about the twin fictions that are “the liberal media” and a “conspiracy” to suppress any discussion of abortion that does not serve the “left-wing” agenda.
The more graphically Kermit Gosnell’s crimes are discussed and detailed, the more powerful the narrative becomes, as it resonates throughout the Right-wing media machine.
The framing of the Kermit Gosnell case by the Right-wing media is pornographic: it is the rough equivalent of a snuff film. There is a prurient fascination with the details of the body, how it can be destroyed, and the various ways that the flesh can be dismembered or hurt. The details are revolting; they are also titillating and exhilarating for those who want to take away women’s reproductive rights, and see such an effort as a moral crusade.
For example, Andrew McCarthy’s recent piece at the National Review is an example of “habeas corpus” in the Right-wing political imagination— “show me the body” is made into a literal type of visual political vocabulary:
A decade later in Philadelphia, “it would rain fetuses. Fetuses and blood all over the place.” So said Stephen Massof, one of Kermit Gosnell’s fellow butchers, as he described for the jury the chamber of horrors that was the “Women’s Medical Society” on Lancaster Avenue. There, scores of babies — perhaps hundreds of them — were willfully mutilated after being born alive.
Standard fare was the “snip.”
“Snip” is a terse, antiseptic word. Like “choice,” it is tailored to those rare, discomfiting occasions when the intentional killing of a “however way you want to describe it” must be spoken of rather than silently done. It is an effort, as much mentally as verbally, to evade the monstrousness we abide in the United States, where nearly 60 million children — a population roughly equal to that of France or the United Kingdom — have been aborted since the Supreme Court’s 1973 fatwa in Roe v. Wade.
In a “snip,” the abortionist, sharp scissors in hand, grasps the squirming and sometimes squealing baby he has just delivered. He stabs the child in the back and then, snapping the blades, severs the spinal cord from the brain. Massof described the snip as “literally a beheading. It is separating the brain from the body.”
Conservatives are especially vulnerable to such norms and habits because of their extreme addiction to the socio-political narcotic known as American Exceptionalism. Many Republicans are obsessed with dead fetuses. But, they are also rather immune to the suffering of adults, teens, children, and babies whose bodies and lives are shattered by American foreign and domestic policy.
In total, the obsession with the specifics of Kermit Gosnell’s deeds by the Right-wing media constitutes a type of “torture porn” best exemplified by Hollywood films like Saw or Hostel.
Kermit Gosnell is cast as the character “Jigsaw” in the Saw movies (or perhaps even the Nazi Doctor Joseph Mengele) where he sits around devising new ways to destroy the human body. He is perverse, monstrous, possessed of a gross indifference to suffering.
How can a reasonable person not hate such a person? Moreover, how can a reasonable—and “moral” person—not want to put an end to such practices?
Liberals and progressives understand that legal and safe access to abortion services are a way of preventing the excesses and dangerous behavior of doctors such as Kermit Gosnell. Conservatives who want to overturn Roe versus Wade have confused outcome with process. Outlawing abortion will create more Gosnell’s and not fewer of them.
The “pro-life” movement has developed a sophisticated vocabulary to mobilize their supporters and potential allies. They make good use of “dog whistles” such as a recurring mention of the infamous Dred Scott case when discussing Roe versus Wade.
Dred Scott is considered by constitutional scholars to be one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in American history. The use of Dred Scott by conservatives who want to overturn Roe vs. Wade also allows them to make a moral claim, as they try to relate a Supreme Court decision that deemed all African-Americans subject to slavery as human property, to one that acknowledges women’s reproductive rights and freedoms.
The Dred Scott dog whistle works by dishonestly linking together two very dissimilar cases in the Right-wing imagination.
The obsession with Kermit Gosnell is the opposite of the subtle dog whistle politics deployed by conservative, anti-reproductive rights advocates: it is glaring, obvious, and clear.
Ultimately, the pro-life movement and the conservative establishment view the over-turning of Roe versus Wade as a just struggle of the first order. It is their civil rights movement, one that in a search for moral certainty reaches back to the Abolitionist Movement. The ahistorical nature of these claims and connections by conservatives is of no concern for those who want to strip away a woman’s right to choose.
Because they seek moral certainty, and a claim on one of the United States’ greatest struggles legitimates an effort to constrain the reproductive rights of women.
The classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to galvanize public support against the evils of chattel slavery. The fixation on Kermit Gosnell is a contemporary effort to find a story (or Internet meme) with similar power and emotion. The Right-wing echo chamber wants to make Kermit Gosnell their Simon Legree.
The Abolitionist Movement used political theater to win over the white American public in their fight against chattel slavery: in the performance, abolitionists would invite former slaves to speak about their experiences. Then, at a dramatic moment, the now free person of color would open up his or her shirt, revealing the scarred back, torn from the lash of the evil whip wielded by the dastardly slave owner or overseer. In that moment, the black body was made a site of the visual politics necessary to generate social change and revolution on the ground.
The Right-wing echo chamber’s torture porn obsession with dead fetuses and Kermit Gosnell is their effort to “find” Dred Scott and the visually provocative whipped body of former slaves.
History is not fair.
The Abolitionists were working for the expansion of human freedom; the “pro-life” movement is working in the opposite direction. Lurid images of dead fetuses in a narrative better suited for a Hollywood torture porn snuff movie do not disguise or mask that basic fact.