The Gosnell trial and America's ambivalence about abortion

Matt C. Abbott
May 13, 2013 © Matt C. Abbott
Reproduced with Permission

From a May 10 story at

Only a tiny percentage of Americans - 7% - are following the sensational Gosnell trial 'very closely' according to a new poll by Gallup. Another 18% said they were following it 'somewhat closely.' But according to Gallup even the combined total of Americans following the story at all - 25% - 'is well below the 61 percent average level of attention Americans have paid to the more than 200 news stories Gallup has measured since 1991.'

At least part of the blame may be due to a media blackout in the case. Of those following the case, 46% said they believe the media has not been reporting enough on the trial, as opposed to 20% who said the media has been reporting 'too much' on it....

Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll was conducted May 2-7, right after closing arguments in the Gosnell trial. It showed that American attitudes toward abortion are nearly unchanged in the wake of the grisly case.

According to Gallup's research, currently, 26% of Americans favor legalized abortion under any and all circumstances, 13% favor legality under most circumstances, 38% favor it in only a few circumstances, and 20% say it should always be illegal. These numbers are similar to polls from May and December of 2012, before the Gosnell trial began....

I asked Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, to comment on the above story. Father Pavone's response is as follows:

The fact that a relatively small percentage of the American public are following closely the Gosnell trial is not surprising. Certainly the relative lack of media coverage of the case accounts for that to some extent. But a clearer picture of what is happening emerges when we consider that the lack of attention to this case both by the media and by the American public stems from the same source: pain.

Public opinion has not only remained relatively stable on abortion since the Gosnell case started; it has remained remarkably stable all throughout these four decades since Roe vs. Wade, and that is not because Americans are solidified in their opinion on this controversial topic, but rather that they are conflicted and ambivalent.

And the conflict and ambivalence come largely from pain.

It has been said that the more one realizes that to know more about something is going to hurt, it's amazing to see how little one wants to learn. So it is with abortion. Common sense tells us enough about it to know that it's wrong, ugly, and painful. And that's enough for many people to know that they don't want to know anything more.

On the one hand their natural inclination to preserve life kicks in and protests against abortion; on the other hand, they realize that pregnancy and childbearing require sacrifice and lifestyle changes, and want to preserve some kind of options especially for those close to them.

Moreover, they know that if they really face what abortion is, they will be profoundly disturbed and will not have peace unless they do something about it. Yet the prospect of doing something about it will bring sacrifices of its own, because they will be taking a stand that will be opposed. The results, then, of facing abortion, create a lose-lose dilemma. The solution for many, then, is simply to ignore it.

And all of this is not even to mention the pain that more and more people every day have from personal involvement in abortion.

So when a Gosnell case comes along, that places before us the undeniable reality that, as Gosnell's defense attorney Jack McMahon said in court, abortion is bloody and real, our inclination is to change the subject and pay attention to something else.

Yet this doesn't mean that before this case runs its course, there will not be a change. I mentioned the relative stability of public opinion on abortion. Where we did see a noticeable shift in the pro-life direction was during the years when partial-birth abortion came to light. When the horror of the procedure itself is placed in the spotlight, that horror will tend to outweigh any perceived benefit the procedure may have.

The Gosnell case can provide the same kind of moment to our nation. It is up to each of us to take the details of what this case shows us regarding both abortion and the conditions of abortion clinics, and spread them far and wide. See for more information.

Regarding abortion, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (paragraphs 2271, 2272, 2322):

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.

Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. 'A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,' 'by the very commission of the offense,' and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.

From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a 'criminal' practice (GS 27 § 3), gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.