Philadelphia magazine has a big new story on notorious abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. Reporter Steve Volk spent weeks writing letters and emails and speaking on the phone with the imprisoned Gosnell, whose laundry list of horrific misdeeds include terminating pregnancies illegally, killing born babies, working on patients under filthy circumstances with unqualified assistance, and writing illegal prescriptions he knew were being sold for cash on the streets. At a whopping 51 pages, Volk’s investigation, which is also being sold as an e-book titled “Gosnell’s Babies,” promises to be a never-before-told expose of what was really going on with Gosnell and what it all means for the abortion debate.
After plunking down $3 on the e-book, however, I have to say that this economic model for longform journalism is the most interesting part of the story. Volk doesn’t turn up much new information, other than revealing, unsurprisingly, that Gosnell is a dissembling person who is full of excuses and attempts to align himself with more reputable doctors, such as the assassinated Dr. George Tiller. (Volk fails to mention that the reputable abortion community rejected Gosnell.) Slightly more interesting is that Volk implies that Gosnell might be suffering from some kind of mental illness that led to a hoarding problem, one so serious that you couldn’t walk through Gosnell’s basement without getting covered with fleas. Unfortunately, this detail is presented merely as color, not as an opening to question whether Gosnell’s apparent mental health problems interfered with his judgment.
That’s in no small part because Volk very badly wants his story to be one of greater political importance. “The line between legal and illegal has to be drawn somewhere,” he states, trying to argue that the supposedly “arbitrary” nature of where we draw that line made it easy for Gosnell to cross. The problem with that thinking is that it doesn’t reflect the real world struggle over abortion. Anti-choicers like to focus on the later-term procedures that make up an extremely small number of abortions because it’s a great P.R. tactic. The real battle is not where we draw the line, but whether or not legal abortion is going to be available at all.
Volk shows very little interest in what motivates a woman to seek abortion, using the dehumanizing phrase “a matter of geography” to describe the legal difference between a fetus and a baby. It’s a missed opportunity. If he had bothered to interview women who have had abortions, particularly Gosnell’s patients, he might have actually uncovered a story of real political importance: a story about how our health care systems fail poor women, leaving them unable to get early abortions when they want them and forcing them to settle for substandard and often even illegal alternatives. You can feel this story on the margins, threatening to burst through when Gosnell’s defense lawyer talks elliptically of how the patients were “rough, marginal people,” as if this justified a clinic that was covered in filth, where patients were treated like chattel. But Volk leaves that thread on the table, and the reader is left with a story, much like the one of the rogue dentist in Oklahoma, about a doctor who flouts medical regulations and his patients who paid the price for it. Interesting as a crime story, but don’t expect anything more.