Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Making the Right Argument in the Gosnell Murder Case

Elisa Shearer


May 31, 2013

By Elisa Shearer

A version of this article originally appeared on, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice. 

On May 13, 2013, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for the death of three babies born alive at his abortion clinic in Philadelphia. The next day, Gosnell waived his right to appeal in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.  This sentence marked the end not only of a corrupt medical practice, but also of a sustained media frenzy. The Gosnell case may be over, but its coverage (and argued lack thereof) caused a wave of commentary on media coverage and the wider issue of abortion. Many pro-life voices have been using the Gosnell case as an argument against abortion; however, many of these anti-abortion arguments have only undermined the broader pro-life cause.

After Kirsten Powers blasted the media in April for failing to cover the Gosnell trial adequately, many voices in the pro-life movement saw the case as an opportunity to reveal the horrors of abortion. While some commentators focused on the lack of media coverage as a story in itself, most used the Gosnell story to discuss abortion overall. Red Alert Politics called the Gosnell debacle a “victory” handed to the pro-life movement by the media. Powers’ original editorial linked the late-term abortions to Planned Parenthood: "Planned Parenthood recently claimed that the possibility of infants surviving late-term abortions was ‘highly unusual.’ The Gosnell case suggests otherwise."

At the Christian Post, Star Parker wrote a column about how practices like those at the Gosnell clinic are extremely common. She linked this to Planned Parenthood and their conduction of abortions, but her article is predominately about how abortion clinics are often unsanitary and unsafe and how the press "does not want to report about the gruesome truths of abortion.”

National Right to Life News also called out the “Abortion Industry” and argued that the conditions at the Gosnell clinic were more the norm than an aberration.  The National Right to Life abortion information page features disturbing medical details about the procedures involved in abortions at various stages.

These pro-life activists do themselves a disservice. Gruesome conditions and horrific procedures like those at the Gosnell clinic are indeed horrific, but focusing on that as a central argument against abortion leaves a key rhetorical gap, one that suggests that abortion would be less abhorrent if the operations were clean, professional, and sanitary. This is a problem because many abortion clinics ARE clean, professional, and sanitary, and government funding for these clinics, it can be argued, may further improve conditions. There may come a time when the vast majority of abortion clinics are well funded, professionally staffed, and medically safe for pregnant women.

People are rightly horrified at the cases of infanticide in the Gosnell trial; but, according to the values of many of pro-life activists, all abortions should be considered infanticide. Similarly, late-term abortions are easy to attack because of the possibility of a failed abortion and endangering the mother. However, focusing on late-term abortions only opens up space for legislation allowing earlier abortions.

The crazed, corrupt doctor is an easy target to point a finger at right now, but this detracts from what should be the pro-life movement's strongest argument: the affirmation of the existence of a human life in the womb. This is its most consistent stance.

Appealing to our collective horror and disgust may bring the issue to the front of public attention, but it will ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the anti-abortion movement as a whole. There is a sound philosophical and moral argument against abortion. If the pro-life movement deviates from this foundation, they may win the attention of the public, but they will ultimately surrender the legitimacy of their argument. 

Elisa Shearer, a 2012 Houghton College graduate, is currently pursuing a Master’s in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University. 

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”