The trial and conviction of Kermit Gosnell does not prove that abortions should be illegal. After all, what Gosnell did was illegal and, as William Saletan points out, people like him are extremely rare:
If you go to the CDC’s Wonder database and plug in code P96.4, you’ll find that in 2010, the total number of deaths linked to this condition (“termination of pregnancy, newborn”) was 30. In 2009, it was 42. In 2008, it was 33. In 2007, it was 30. In most of these cases, the fetus had gestated less than 24 weeks—not enough to survive outside the womb. How many of the coded deaths were fetuses 24 weeks along or more? The database shows five in 2007, seven in 2008, and six in 2009.*
When you take into account the percentage of deaths in this group that were also attributed to other factors such as “neonatal cardiac dysrhythmia” or “hypoxic schemic encephalopathy” — roughly 50 to 90 percent — we’re probably talking about two to three cases a year in which the death of a post-viability baby was attributed solely to abortion. And we have no idea from the records whether these abortions were done to save the woman’s life.
But nor does his case "prove" what would become the norm if abortions were illegal. Both sides of the abortion debate act as if Gosnell is just an abortion doctor and we just have to decide if he's the norm now or would be the norm if access becomes more difficult. Both sides are wrong.
Kermit Gosnell is a serial killer. Trying to make public policy based on the actions of a serial killer is foolish. There aren't that many of them. How serial killers act tells us nothing about how the majority of people who have superficially similar traits to them. The BTK Killer was a Boy Scout leader. Should we pass policy treating all Boy Scout leaders like murderers? Or, on account of Ted Bundy, should we make it illegal for good looking men to date, since any one of them might be a danger to women? Or should we ban 20-somethings from living together because of Charles Manson?
Let's look at the evidence that Gosnell is a serial killer. The FBI defines serial murders as "The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events." That obviously fits Gosnell's case. The FBI also believes that understanding psychopathy is useful in understanding the mind of a serial killer. Here are some traits of psychopathy from the FBI:
The interpersonal traits include glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and the manipulation of others. The affective traits include a lack of remorse and/or guilt, shallow affect, a lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility. The lifestyle behaviors include stimulation-seeking behavior, impulsivity, irresponsibility, parasitic orientation, and a lack of realistic life goals. The anti-social behaviors include poor behavioral controls, early childhood behavior problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, and criminal versatility. The combination of these individual personality traits, interpersonal styles, and socially deviant lifestyles are the framework of psychopathy and can manifest themselves differently in individual psychopaths.
Now, let's look at this story from NBC10 in Philadelphia about the testimony of one of Gosnell's accomplices, Lynda Williams. Gosnell certainly manipulated her. She was Gosnell's patient initially (he was treating her for bipolar disorder) before he hired her at his clinic. Then he instructed her to dose patients and to perform medical procedures she wasn't qualified to do.
I don't think there's any argument that Gosnell failed to act responsibly. I think you could also argue that he had a parasitic orientation — he depended on desperate women to give him access to his victims. But more than that, from the NBC10 story comes this: "Williams said she witnessed Gosnell snip the necks of over 30 babies and that he sometimes gave her just the feet of a fetus, to place in formaldehyde."
When a doctor keeps a jar of baby feet, they're called specimens. When a serial killer keeps a jar of feet, they're trophies. Gosnell has a preferred victim type — newborn babies — but his disregard for the safety and well-being of his adult patients — again, the NBC10 story has details on how much pain Karnamaya Mongar was in as she died — leads me to suspect that he was fine being responsible for the deaths of anyone, whether they were his preferred victim or not.
And note how, in this story on Philly.com, he arrogantly refuses to accept any responsibility for Mongar's death: "I didn't do anything wrong. I'll be able to answer any question anywhere." Remember, he's saying this after instructing a woman with an eighth-grade education to administer anesthesia to Mongar, who died in his "care."
Note also that Williams saw him snip the necks of more than 30 babies. Not all of these babies were alive. It's a ritual mutilation. If you found the corpse of one of Gosnell's victims, you'd know it was his — a baby with its neck snipped and one or both feet missing.
There's a term for the kind of serial killer Gosnell is: an Angel of Death, a medical professional of some sort who uses the trappings of his or her profession to gain access to his or her victims and to hide his or her true nature in plain sight. Gosnell tells us as much about the abortion issue as Donald Harvey tells us about euthanasia.
Not that this is going to prevent people on both sides of the abortion debate from continuing to point to him as the example of their particular bogeyman. But it should.