On Gosnell and Galileo

The Kermit Gosnell abortion/murder case, which has now concluded in a life sentence for Gosnell, deserved both our attention and repulsion. The specific case is over, but the doublespeak which governs so many of our conversations surrounding abortion is as confounding as ever.

Hardcore feminists and defenders of unfettered access to abortion at all stages of pregnancy have tried to pretend that their arguments aren’t incoherent. In this piece, Michelle Goldberg, opens by insisting, “it['s] very clear that the horrors he committed in his squalid West Philadelphia clinic were illegal.” That’s true, but only because of regulations on abortion clinics which Goldberg herself opposes.

Similarly, in this post, “Why Women Went to Kermit Gosnell,” in the American Prospect, the author stipulates that “Infanticide and medically unnecessary post-viability abortions were already illegal under Pennsylvania law.” The author seems to agree with most of humanity in thinking that illegality is a good thing. But, then, in the very next sentence, he criticizes Pennsylvania’s legal system, writing:

The Keystone State—which was the instigator of the 1992 case that substantially watered down the protections of Roe v. Wade—has long been a pioneer in passing extensive, arbitrary regulations of abortion that are among the nation’s most onerous.

So on one hand, these are regulations that allow pro-choicers to dismiss the Gosnell case as a tragic outlier. But on the other, these are regulations that, if activists had their way, would not be on the books.

This kind of pretzel logic motivated me to re-read Walker Percy’s 1981 article, “A View of Abortion with Something to Offend Everybody.” Percy employs his deeply human and novelistic beat on life to criticize American society’s “chronic misuse of words.” Indeed, when it comes to abortion politics, that misuse of words has tangled-up philosophy, history, religion, science, and the law into our current media mess. As Percy writes:

There is a wonderful irony here. It is this: The onset of individual life is not a dogma of the church but a fact of science. How much more convenient if we lived in the 13th century, when no one knew anything about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were legitimate. Compared to a modern textbook of embryology, Thomas Aquinas sounds like an American Civil Liberties Union member. Nowadays it is not some misguided ecclesiastics who are trying to suppress an embarrassing scientific fact. It is the secular juridical-journalistic establishment.

Please indulge the novelist if he thinks in novelistic terms. Picture the scene. A Galileo trial in reverse. The Supreme Court is cross-examining a high school biology teacher and admonishing him that of course it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized human ovum is an individual human life. He is enjoined not to teach his private beliefs at a public school. Like Galileo he caves in, submits, but in turning away is heard to murmur, ‘But it’s still alive!’

Planned Parenthood hardliners are free to continue arguing on behalf of arbitrary distinctions and laws they only sort-of-kind-of actually belief to be legitimate.

But Percy wonderfully rebuts, “To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you’re not going to have it both ways. You’re going to be told what you’re doing.”