“There’s an old joke: Uh … two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food in this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions’” (Woody Allen from Annie Hall).
PHILADELPHIA—The weirdest thing for me at the Kermit Gosnell murder trial has been the niggling over a broken scale, a cloudy fish tank, an aging ultrasound machine, a leaky ceiling, debatable milligrams of meds, and 24 versus 26 weeks in the Philadelphia abortion center. I know these things are important—and if you are bent on having an abortion anyway you might as well pick a clean facility where you can weigh yourself properly. But there is just something so bizarre, so beside the point, about complaining over portion size in a restaurant when the real issue is that the food stinks.
Brush aside the state-of-the-art superiority of suburban hospital abortions (yet who knows what goes on in their boiler rooms with inconvenient births?) and what you are left with in both venues is babies that are worm food. The first up in the closing arguments Monday, defense attorney Jack McMahon did his best to minimize the differences between Gosnell and his fellow abortionists by reminding us that, after all, the goal for one and all is dead babies. He rebuked the government and the press alike for sensationalizing the case with their unrelenting drumbeat of the phrase “house of horrors.” “Never in my life have I seen the presumption of innocence stomped on more than in this case,” said McMahon.
For the prosecution’s part, Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron had to do the opposite: to maximize the difference between Gosnell and other abortionists. His was the tightrope dance of stirring us up to disgust with photos of aborted babies, while never letting us think about that fact that those photos could easily have been taken at nearby Abington Memorial Hospital. Sometimes I think he went a bridge too far for his own good, as when he stated almost proudly about his expert witness, abortionist Charles Benjamin: “In no case in 30,000 abortions was any baby born alive, because he did things the right way!” He stopped just short of nominating the fellow for a medal of honor.
Part of Cameron’s deft distancing act involved contrasting Gosnell’s method of disposal of accidental live births with the “proper” way of doing it. This was his most pathetic ploy of all. “Babies don’t like bright lights,” he said. “You’ve gotta make them feel comfortable. … They feel the cold.” Just in case I am not making myself clear, Cameron was not talking about administering heroic means to save the baby, but was commending the self-deceivingly called “comfort care” of babies left to die on a table.
And yet, so deep is the self-deception that Cameron, unaware of his own irony, pleaded to the jury emotionally, “Outside the mother all things change. Once a baby is outside the mother it is a human being. … You cannot accelerate the death process because that is murder.” So then, Gosnell’s crime is the acceleration, while Karen Feisullin, an ob-gyn at Abington Hospital, is laudable because her accidentally breathing babies die under a cloth in a non-accelerated fashion.
Both attorneys talked about “reasonable doubt,” McMahon calling for a more stringent standard than Cameron, of course. “Not proven means not guilty,” said the defender, putting me in remembrance of another famous defender whose catchy phrase, “If it does not fit, you must acquit” proved effective in a bygone celebrated murder trial.
Cameron did not exact that degree of fearful philosophical introspection from the jury. “Do you, as reasonable people, think he’s guilty?” he asked.
In the next few days, America will learn the jury’s answer to that question. In the meantime, for armchair trial watchers like you and me, the last two months’ tangle of legal, moral, and cultural questions has seemed anything but reasonable, and more like Gosnell’s cloudy fish tank.