The Gosnell Trial: Lessons and Challenges

The Gosnell trial unmasked the horrific violence of abortion and the terrible exploitation of poor women that often comes with it. It reminded us of what abortion is…the destruction of babies before, and now in some documented cases, after they are born.

It is very important to remember all the victims of Gosnell…the babies he killed and the mothers he exploited and, in at least in one case, killed as well. The women who turned to Dr. Gosnell did so, not to celebrate “choice," but because they lacked any sense of hope for their child’s future or their own. We need to condemn the crimes of Dr. Gosnell and attack the hopelessness that led desperate women to turn to him. The Gosnell trial makes it harder to turn away…from the brutal violence of abortion or the desperation of mothers who go to a horrible place for a horrible thing because they have no hope, for themselves or their child.


When it comes to abortion, too many see only one of the lives at stake. For some, it is all about the woman, her rights, her future and her fears. For others it is all about the babies, their lives, rights and promise. Two lives are at stake in different ways. Our society sees both “unwanted” children and poor women as disposable…as things, not people; as issues and political talking points, not vulnerable human beings, sisters and brothers.

The early failure of most media to cover these horrible crimes and trial was another sign that abortion on demand remains the unexamined policy, the unassailable cause and the non-negotiable agenda in elite, progressive and libertarian circles. Ironically, abortion is the cause that its advocates will not name. The president says “God Bless Planned Parenthood” and attacks those who seek restraints on abortion on demand and never mentions what “right” and what “choice” he is determined to protect and what “service” Planned Parenthood offers more than any other organization on earth. As Mark Shields has pointed out, Americans are an anti-abortion people in a pro-choice nation. According to the polls, when the focus is on what is chosen, most people are pro-life, when the question is who decides, most people are pro-choice.

Abortion may never become illegal as it once was, but with the help of science and the consciences of women, it may someday become almost unthinkable. The more we learn about the humanity of the unborn child, the more unacceptable destroying that life will become. A society that operates on tiny babies in the womb to save their lives may become intolerant of poisoning and dismembering babies in the womb to end their lives. Mothers know what pregnancy means. No one watches a “clump of cells” on a sonogram, or names the “growth” in their womb, or has a “fetus” shower. Making abortion unthinkable is not impossible. Drunk driving was once accepted. Smoking used to be cool. We are watching capital punishment slowly disappear before our eyes. Even in this awful case the state chose not to seek the death penalty. It made no sense to try to kill the doctor who was killing babies to teach us that killing is wrong.

Cardinal Hickey, who I served for most of a decade, was passionately pro-life, but was dubious about some of the strident tactics of some antiabortion factions. In their purity, they mistake allies for adversaries; differences in strategies for differences on principle; they seek confrontation over conversion. He said if each one of us would persuade one person to join the pro-life cause we would have twice as many pro-lifers. If each one of us would reach out to help mothers and children in need, there would be fewer turning to abortion in despair or fear. If each one of us would stand up for unborn children in our own families, communities and political parties, we would build a movement which over time could not be denied.

Likewise, there is a lack of moral courage and conviction that keeps too many from acting on our moral convictions on the duty to protect human life and defend the weak and our disagreement with those who oppose any restrictions on abortion. We sometimes choose party over principle, accommodation over advocacy for the vulnerable, and going along with taking a stand. Too often, we turn our eyes away from the deadly reality of abortion and the cruel choices it offers women. The Gosnell trial has made that much, much harder.

John Carr is the “Washington Front” Columnist for America and the Director of the new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. He was the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department on Justice, Peace and Human Development for more than two decades.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
5 years 1 month ago
"Abortion may never become illegal as it once was, but with the help of science and the consciences of women, it may someday become almost unthinkable. The more we learn about the humanity of the unborn child, the more unacceptable destroying that life will become." An excellent commentary. Abortion is one of the major hearts-and-minds issues we're facing today. Real change will require a multi-faceted approach that goes well beyond a focus on just the legal venue. Diminution, and hopefully cessation, of abortion has to be part of a widespread dedication to consistent ethic of life principles as well, and the issue of the poverty of many of the women seeking abortions must also be addressed if a change in public consciousness is to come about. In addition, while abortion is certainly a human rights issue that all people should care about, I think it is women who must take the helm in efforts to address the issue. Several pro-life organizations have come to appreciate this reality and have chosen women for the top leadership positions. In addition, Serrin Foster and her Feminists for Life organization have for some time been making a compelling case that abortion is in reality anti-women in its effects. The clarion voice of John Carr at the USCCB will no doubt still be heard as well in his new duties for America and Georgetown University.
Gabriel Marcella
5 years 1 month ago
A splendid meditation, beautifully written, and an inspiration to act on our moral convictions.


The latest from america

In “Sorry to Bother You,” the system’s greatest threat—literal ownership of your time and person—is also its promise of relief.
Eve TushnetJuly 17, 2018
St. Michael Cathedral in Tha Rae, Thailand (iStock photo)
During the cave crisis, at the Cathedral of Saint Michael in Thare, a small village located along Nonghan Lake in northeastern Thailand’s Isaan region, Catholics offered Mass and asked for the intervention of St. Michael the Archangel to protect the young men.
The Catholic Church has renewed efforts to fight racism in the U.S., but Black Lives Matter deserves credit for keeping our attention on racial justice.
Olga SeguraJuly 17, 2018
What can the church do to help repent for the sins of leaders like Cardinal McCarrick and all those who turned a blind eye to his wrongdoing?
The EditorsJuly 17, 2018