The Abortion Debate: You’re Doing it Wrong

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 ousted 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 predominantly 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. So why is this argument so commonly used?

It’s possible that pro-life activists feel pressure from the media, or their conception of public opinion. The abortion debate is often framed in popular media as a party line conflict. However, numbers from a 2011 Pew Research poll indicates that almost ⅓ of Democrats believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases; conversely, 39% of Republicans responded that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. While there is a correlation between party identification and views on the topic, it is not yet a black-and-white party conflict.

However, framing the issue in dramatic language and heart-wrenching stories happens on both sides of the debate, because it’s a tactic which receives a large amount of immediate public attention. The most vocal pro-life advocates emphasize unsafe abortions; conversely, pro-choice advocates paint the pro-life movement as being made up of a crowd of angry protesters hurling religious condemnation and racial slurs.

Because the debate has been so politicized, the accusations of foul play fly in both directions: much of the media pounced on Jon Kyl’s blatantly false statement that “abortion is 90% of what Planned Parenthood does”; on the other side, Fox News called the Gosnell trial the case that “the media don’t want you to know about.” Portrayals of the American public in a deeply divided (and even militant) war over abortion ignore the stances of the majority of the American public. However, speakers for both sides of the debate have found that this type of rhetoric gets them attention.

The crazed, corrupt doctor and the violent abortion clinic protesters are easy targets to point a finger at right now, but this tactic will ultimately undermine the logical basis of the entire abortion debate. If the movements continue with these strategies, they may win the attention of the public, but they will ultimately surrender the legitimacy of their argument.