The murder trial of Dr Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist, is in its fifth week. For four of those, although the allegations against him are shocking, the case exercised largely only the local press.
In the last week, papers and TV have rushed to cover the story as it became the centre of an acrimonious media storm, as much to do with the US’s abortion “culture war” as with the case itself.
Anti-abortion pundits have berated the "pro-abortion mainstream media" for "deliberately ignoring" the case because it casts a poor light on abortion. There were even calls and letters in faraway Dublin to this paper demanding to know why we are "suppressing" it, why we cover Savita but not Gosnell, suggesting that we too are part of a liberal media conspiracy.
But first, Gosnell.
Gosnell (72) was charged in January 2011 after a grand jury probe. He faces 26 charges, including eight counts of murder for the deaths of seven newborn infants by “snipping” their necks with scissors, and of a pregnant 41-year-old patient. If convicted in the woman’s death, caused allegedly by an overdose of drugs from the clinic, Gosnell could face the death penalty. He denies that any of the “aborted” babies were born alive and says the woman died of unexpected complications.
Eight other staff in the clinic were charged. All of them pleaded guilty.
The opening of the grand jury report outlines the allegations graphically: “This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women . . . 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.”
On Monday a city medical examiner in evidence described body parts from 47 foetuses removed from the filthy clinic where they had been frozen and stored in pet food containers, some in a water jug and a juice carton.
But what does the case say about the abortion industry, particularly in the minority of states where late abortions are permitted?
The conditions and the practices alleged in the clinic were abominable. He should have been shut down and a long time ago – on that pro- and anti-choice campaigners are completely at one.
But the argument that Gosnett is representative of the reality of abortion practice in America is a sweeping and unfair claim that simply does not stand up any more than Dr Harold Shipman can be used as an argument against British care for the elderly.
Where the lobby has its strongest argument in generalising from the case, one shared by feminists, is in pointing to the complete failure of the Philadelphia regulatory authorities who knew of, to a degree, and failed for years to act on the conditions in the clinic. From 1979 when Gosnell was licenced as an abortion provider there were three on-site inspections, all revealing violation Nothing was done. Complaints about Gosnell from injured women, a doctor and a medical examiner went unheeded.
“We think the reason no one acted,” the grand jury argued, “is because the women in question were poor and of colour, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
Such failures make the story one deserving of media coverage on public interest grounds and give cause to critics who complained that it was being ignored. Yet the truth is that many such critics were writing for media outlets which themselves had not covered the story.
It is far from clear that, as some allege, decisions were taken not to report the story. A Washington Post editor has admitted what would be true for many, including this paper's editors, that he simply had not known of the story until readers emailed him last week. "I wish I could be conscious of all stories everywhere, but I can't be," he said. "We never decide what to cover for ideological reasons, no matter what critics might claim."
Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute, says she sees no evidence of any cover-up, simply confusion by news editors over whether the story merited national attention.
In truth, choices about what few stories to report out of the millions out there are more often the product as much of news editors’ dawning perceptions of what others are reporting, sometimes manifested in social media storms, as they are of that elusive concept of “news values”, less still an ideological agenda.