Jury Duty Horror—Serving on the Dr. Kermit Gosnell Jury

The case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell provides a ghastly example of what’s wrong with the death penalty: any charge of capital murder demands a jury trial rather than a bench trial. When the charges are irrefutable as they are in Gosnell’s case, there is no real need for a jury of peers to confirm the obvious. Nonetheless, twelve Pennsylvanians will eventually be compelled to sit in the jury box and listen to weeks of unspeakably horrible testimony.

What sane person would want to serve on such a jury?

I haven’t written in this blog for several weeks, because I was finishing a novel in which one theme is the value of a baby. SNOW GHOST is set in 1929, the year of the St. Valentine Day Massacre and Black Tuesday on the NY Stock Exchange. The crime around which the plot revolves is what was then called “baby farming.

Baby farming was actually an umbrella for a number of crimes: illegal abortions, selling unwanted babies, kidnapping, infanticide, child abuse, and many forms of exploitation of young women.

One infamous case of baby farming was Helen Geisen-Volk (1925). A nurse in New York City, she was ultimately accused of assisting in illegal abortions, taking in unwanted infants and selling them, and grossly neglecting, abusing, and killing infants in her care. (For more details, see Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child and www.thepkpapers.com ) She was prosecuted successfully after taking in an infant while his mother was hospitalized, then trying to substitute another infant when the child died in her care.

Ninety years later, we learn that baby farms were not the worst horror the human mind can contrive. Gosnell’s clinic was the opposite of a baby farm; it was a baby slaughterhouse.

Noto Bene: I support a woman’s right to an abortion, because I believe in every human being’s right to complete privacy of their person and control of their body. But I don’t support a woman’s right to murder or abuse her children or to terminate the life of a viable fetus she is carrying, because I don’t believe there is any situation in which her life would be in danger if she committed herself to the care of a competent physician. (I am interested in information that would refute this belief.)

How did we arrive at this 180?

Yesterday InSession’s Vinnie Politan interviewed a Philadelphia DA about the Gosnell case. The DA claimed that Gosnell had separate facilities for poor women and well-off white women, neither of which was sanitary. Doesn’t this puzzle you? Why would any woman, poor or not, submit to an abortion in an unsanitary clinic when so many well-run abortion clinics are available?

Perhaps the answer is that they waited too long to obtain a legal abortion. The DA implied in his interview that Gosnell was willing to perform illegal late-term abortions—not partial-birth abortions, but live deliveries of seven-month babies, which he then murdered in a way too horrible for me to repeat here.

But this puzzles me, too. What would cause a woman who had carried a fetus for up to 30 weeks to decide she didn’t want to give birth?

I have some ideas. Some of them I have explored in SNOW GHOST (which is now in the hands of an agent). I think I’ll write about them in future posts.


In the meantime, I think it’s worth comparing the Gosnell crime and the strange case of Nejdra Nance, a young woman who was kidnapped from a hospital in 1987 and raised by a woman, who abused her.

The woman who raised her is named Ann Pettway. Pettway either kidnapped the infant or obtained the infant from the kidnapper—and then abused Nance so that she never believed she was Pettway’s child. All her life she investigated missing children’s lists in search for her own identity.

Both Geisen-Volk and Pettway: such a strange compulsion—the desire for a child to abuse, but not to bear or care for.