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John A. Di Camillo, Be.L.
Ethicist, The National Catholic Bioethics Center
The Nature of Abortion: What the Gosnell Verdict Reveals
June 6, 2013
© 2014 by the National Catholic Bioethics Center

The Nature of Abortion:
What the Gosnell Verdict Reveals

On May 13, 2013, Kermit Gosnell was
 on three counts of first-degree murder, one count of involuntary manslaughter, twenty-one counts of illegal late-term abortions, and hundreds of other lesser charges. The gruesome setting for these crimes was his now-infamous “House of Horrors” in Philadelphia. Despite limited mainstream media coverage, which began in response to a Twitter campaign, there is no doubt that this case brings one of the most tragic and brutal moral scourges of our time back into focus: abortion.

In an opinion piece
 in The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2013,[1] Daniel Henninger flatly acknowledges the “unbearably awful” details of what this man did, which emerged during the trial, and exhorts his readers to keep the verdict sharp in their minds. He characterizes America’s polarized pro-life and pro-abortion political activism as our “second civil war,” and suggests that the Gosnell case can and should seriously impact the debate. “If it doesn’t, we’re in trouble,” he avers. His article elicits two logical reflections spotlighted in the Gosnell case: (1) the distinction between infant homicide and legal abortion is arbitrary; and (2) “what exactly an abortion doctor does to a fetus, using established techniques,” has serious implications for moral and legal assessments.

First, Henninger notes that deliberately killing a baby outside the womb is legally recognized as murder in Pennsylvania, while killing a baby of the same age inside the womb need not be. Yet the “piercing and snipping Gosnell performed,” as Henninger describes it, is not unlike what abortionists may legally do to a child still in the womb through standard procedures such as dilation and evacuation (D&E). In fact, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 does not prohibit “disarticulating” a child at the neck if the child happens to enter the birth canal in one piece during the abortionist’s otherwise legally authorized attempt to dismember the child in the womb (a standard D&E).[2]

Descriptions of Gosnell’s murderous acts elicit shock and disgust, yet child dismemberment hidden from view in the womb passes unnoticed. The Gosnell verdict can and should be a call to recognize the arbitrary distinction between legalized child-killing in the womb and brutish infant homicide. As Henninger notes, “any doctor in the U.S. who performs abortions is looking at the Gosnell verdict and wishing there was more clarity about what falls along the spectrum between a day at the office and first-degree murder.” Indeed, such ambiguity bespeaks a false and arbitrary distinction, not a clear-cut truth.

Second, Henninger makes reference to a hard-to-find piece by Cynthia Gorney
 originally titled “Gambling with Abortion,” which describes in great detail the legal and political battle surrounding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban of 2003 and the strategies of pro-life and pro-abortion advocates in general. More significantly and to the point, the article’s description of courtroom medical testimony about abortion procedures such as D&E and intact dilation and extraction (IDX or intact D&X) lay bare the reality of what a direct abortion is. In short, the actions that a doctor must undertake in order to complete an abortion procedure—which few  abortion advocates will ever acknowledge or address, preferring to focus on “choice” or “rights” or the mother’s well-being—are as starkly murderous as Gosnell’s born-alive infant “snipping.”

Thankfully, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban outlaws IDX, but a D&E is still standard practice for second-trimester (and sometimes third-trimester) abortions. Suction D&E, or vacuum aspiration abortion, which typically rips the developing embryo or fetus apart through the powerful suction and the limited opening size of the cannula, is still a standard technique for first- and second-trimester abortions. Dr. Anthony Levatino recently testified
 to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice about what the doctor does during suction D&E. Abstract concepts and terminology like “terminating the pregnancy” or even “removing the child” conveniently hover above or around the core reality of intrauterine infanticide—a direct attack on a defenseless and innocent human person in the womb.

This is the essence of direct abortion in moral terms: the deliberate killing of an innocent human child who is developing in the womb, whether as an aim or as a means to achieve another aim. Direct abortion is an intrinsic moral evil, as John Paul II made clear in n. 62 of his encyclical Evangelium vitae
, in which he reiterates the millenarian moral tradition of the Church:


Pius XII excluded all direct abortion, i.e., every act tending directly to destroy human life in the womb "whether such destruction is intended as an end or only as a means to an end". John XXIII reaffirmed that human life is sacred because "from its very beginning it directly involves God's creative activity". The Second Vatican Council, as mentioned earlier, sternly condemned abortion: "From the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care, while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes". . . .

 Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops—who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

 No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church. 


Horrendous as they are, the Gosnell murders help us to visualize an important moral guideline: slicing apart, scraping to pieces, dismembering, “snipping,” crushing, aspirating, or otherwise directly attacking the life of a child is always an intrinsic moral evil, regardless of whether that child happens to be located inside or outside of the mother’s body. Henninger does not take a pro-life or pro-choice stance in his conclusion; nonetheless, he cites Cynthia Gorney’s admission that a “there is a sober, profoundly difficult public conversation to be had about second- and third-trimester abortion in this country,” and he responds: “No reasonable person could disagree. But let’s make that any-trimester abortion.”

The inherently violent nature of most standard abortion techniques in all trimesters is a natural reflection of an underlying moral reality that remains the same, regardless of a particular child’s developmental age, size, or visibility, and regardless of efforts to veil the carnage, whether visually or verbally. Hiding the act of murder in its most dissonant environment—a mother’s womb—does not cloak it with goodness and legitimacy. It forces it deeper and harder into the heart of our society. Kermit Gosnell has brought it to light—hopefully it will stay there, reminding us of what is truly at stake with abortion.


John A. Di Camillo, Be.L.

[1] Daniel Henninger, “America’s Second Civil War: The Gosnell verdict means that the abortion status quo must change,” The Wall Street Journal Online, May 15, 2013, (accessed May 17, 2013).

[2] Cynthia Gorney, “On the Politics of Partial-Birth Abortion,” Public Theology, January 27, 2005, (accessed May 17, 2013). Reprinted version of “Gambling with Abortion: Why both sides think they have everything to lose,” Harpers Magazine (November 2004).