THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jeff Jacoby

Abortion’s dangerous euphemisms

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose Philadelphia clinic has been called “a baby charnel house,” has been charged with murder. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose Philadelphia clinic has been called “a baby charnel house,” has been charged with murder. (Associated Press)
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / January 26, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRACIES and legal bodies are not usually known for their vivid writing style. But “vivid’’ doesn’t come close to conveying the driving force of the grand jury report released last week by the Philadelphia district attorney in connection with the Women’s Medical Society, a long-established abortion clinic operated by Dr. Kermit Gosnell. The report was issued on the same day that Gosnell and nine of his employees were arrested on charges including murder, infanticide, and abuse of a corpse. In 261 pages of shatteringly clear prose, the grand jurors laid out their findings.

“This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women,’’ the report begins. “He regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy — and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels — and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it.’’

The report goes on to describe a squalid operation in which hygiene was ignored, equipment was broken, and late-term abortions were routine. Pregnant women were treated with callous disdain, often left for hours, semi-conscious and in pain, on dirty recliners covered with bloodstained blankets. Untrained employees administered powerful drugs to induce labor, and heavy sedatives to keep women from screaming.

Time and again, the grand jury says, late-term babies were delivered alive — fully intact and breathing — and then killed. Gosnell “called it ‘ensuring fetal demise.’ The way he ensured fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called that ’snipping.’ Over the years, there were hundreds of ‘snippings.’ ’’

The grand jury report came out just days before the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. By the usual newsroom calculus, that should have made the ghastly revelation of this “baby charnel house’’ — the grand jury’s term — a huge story. But outside of Philadelphia, it got only muted attention.

Even after the story broke, Philadelphia’s local Planned Parenthood chapter would only “condemn any physician who does not follow the law or endangers anyone’s health,’’ and said women in such cases should “complain to the Department of Health.’’ But the grand jury found that Pennsylvania authorities knew what was happening at Gosnell’s abortion mill, yet deliberately looked the other way. After 1993, with the accession of a prochoice governor, the Pennsylvania Department of Health stopped inspecting abortion clinics. “Officials concluded that inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up to women’ seeking abortions,’’ the report says, and decided “to leave clinics to do as they pleased.’’

Obviously, the prochoice movement is not responsible for the crimes with which Gosnell has been charged. But the blunt clarity of the grand jury’s findings could not contrast more sharply with the abstract euphemisms so often used to describe abortion.

In a statement marking Roe v. Wade’s anniversary, President Obama referred not to “abortion,’’ but to “women’s health and reproductive freedom’’ and the importance of keeping government out of “private family matters.’’ Planned Parenthood and NARAL’s Blog for Choice celebrated Roe for enshrining “a woman’s right to choose.’’

Since 1973, Roe has led to the destruction of more than 40 million unborn babies. It has led as well to a desensitizing debasement of our language. Americans have gotten so used to the idea of life in the womb being violently killed in part because they camouflage that killing with feel-good labels like “reproductive freedom’’ and “choice.’’ So pervasive is the mindset such language sustains that even when an alleged butcher like Gosnell comes along, the champions of “choice’’ offer only muted criticism.

Abortion is always a violent and awful thing, whether it happens in a squalid cesspit or in an immaculate doctor’s office. Reasonable people can debate whether abortion should be legal, and under what circumstances. But they ought to be able to do so without euphemistic evasions.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.