For a while he was the conservative cause celeb. But then Dr. Kermit Gosnell got overtaken by events – Boston, Benghazi, and the Internal Revenue Service. So you didn't hear much about him, even as his case kept moving along, revealing one ghastly detail after the other.
But the Gosnell verdict got me to thinking about him again. It's an horrendous case. And if the facts are to be believed, and I know of no reason why they shouldn't be, Gosnell is a monster. Killing patients. Murdering babies. Operating a horror show for years. Conservatives are rightly horrified by the allegations, as are liberals, moderates and, I assume, just about everyone else.
Of course, at its height, the conservative outrage seemed to have as much to do with the media's perceived lack of interest in the allegations as the allegations themselves. This despite the fact that CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and NPR had all already covered Gosnell by the time the conservative hue and cry reached a fever pitch (to say nothing of the local news outlets that were providing updates almost around the clock). But to conservatives, it didn't feel like enough.
Why? It presumably has less to do with the amount of coverage and more to do with what that coverage failed to bring about: increased skepticism about abortion. For many conservatives, the Gosnell case must have felt like confirmation of something they had long suspected: that abortion providers operate secret carnivals of death behind closed doors.
But maybe the reason the rest of us weren't plunged into soul searching by the case was that it actually didn't tell us much of anything about abortion, or the controversy surrounding it, at all. The facts were too extreme and, no matter how much some would like you to think otherwise, unusual. And then there was that rather stubborn fact sitting right at the center of the case: Gosnell's a psychopath.
These days, with another mass shooting in New Orleans, it's hard not to think about the conservative response to Gosnell in the context of their position on guns. A conservative might say their reaction to the former is entirely consistent with the latter: both acts – abortion and shooting deaths – emerge from a culture soaked in violence and our effort to stop repeat incidents should start with changing the culture first.
Maybe. But somehow that purported consistency leads to starkly divergent policy positions. On the one hand, everyone who wants one should be able to carry a gun; on the other, every abortion clinic should be shut down. This despite the fact that both involve rights that the Supreme Court has found embedded in our Constitution, something that “strict constructionists” profess to find compelling.
There's another way of looking at it. One could conclude that both guns and abortion providers have roles to play in our society but that they each function most productively when embedded in a regulatory scheme that reflects a broader societal consensus. It's ok for some to possess guns, but let's try and stop criminals and the insane from getting them. We need doctors, and to do their jobs they need tools that can, depending on how they are applied, both heal and harm. So let's regulate the medical profession to ensure that qualified individuals, operating in good faith, are the ones providing services.
If that sounds reasonable to you, it's worth remembering that such regulatory constructs don't just build themselves. They take something else conservatives don't like very much – a government that operates as a reflection of the people's will and that is able to implement things like background checks and medical licensing, just a couple of the many unglamorous governmental threads that help knit a democratic society together.
Conservatives aren't buying it, engaging instead in an almost unprecedented effort to scale government back to smaller and smaller size. For them, it's about paying less taxes. But for many others, it will mean an unraveling of the social compact in those areas where the stitching is weakest – where the disadvantaged need services, the sick need care, and where, in cases like abortion and guns, we do the best we can to come up with solutions that are imperfect, though probably better than doing nothing at all.
Government can be many things, but one is a screen we put between people and harm. Take it away and violence, in all of its many forms, is given a freer hand to operate. You get more people going hungry or without care or facing down the barrel of a gun or lying on a gurney in a grim and dilapidated place, hoping to hell that the doctor standing above them is going to wield his scalpel with good intent.
No, government doesn't stop these things from ever happening. Of course it doesn't. But for the most part, it makes them less likely. And in a world populated by Gosnells and guns, that's no small thing.