Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Kermit Gosnell and the Normalcy of Evil

Yesterday Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted of first-degree murder, found guilty of killing three babies following botched late-term abortions. Prosecutors called Gosnell’s clinic a house of horrors. There will surely follow a great deal of debate about definitions of viable life, the standards of regulation of abortion clinics, and so on.

Will clearer definitions and better regulations really remove the possibility of the butchery uncovered in the Gosnell case? It took Gosnell’s employees quite some time to decide that working in filth, storing fetal body parts in jars and empty cat food cans, and snipping the spines of tiny, squirming, crying babies were bad ideas (one man claims to have done over a hundred snippings himself before his conscience felt compromised). Would a clearer understanding of legal requirements have stopped them before they obeyed their employer?

How does such evil flourish? How can it emerge in the context of a practice that has become, in our culture, so normal—or as Hannah Arendt, in her reflections on the Nazi executioner Adolph Eichmann, suggested: How can evil be so banal?

Over the last forty years or so, activism, science, and government—in a kind of legislative ménage à trois—have successfully spawned a cultural perception of normality when it comes to abortion. Sure, there are protestors in front of clinics, but the word abortion has become more ideological than a description of something real. It is the political dividing line between those claiming loyalty to the yet-to-be born, and those standing for rights of the ones who would have to give birth. It is word that is now included in our growing list of inalienable rights.

And then Gosnell shows up and makes it all real.

But we don’t want it to be real (is that why the press seemed so light on the story over the last two and a half years? Was everyone running around asking, “Is it real? Is it real?”). We have worked so hard in protecting our sensibilities by limiting our in-utero descriptions of life to terms like zygote and fetus, but certainly not baby. We seem to have agreed, overall, that it isn’t viable life until we say it is, and that would be somewhere around 21 weeks after conception.

So quit looking at that sonogram. Stop counting those fingers and toes. Ignore that fluttering butterfly that the technician said was a heartbeat. It’s not a living being. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not.

Unless someone like Dr. Gosnell successfully pulls a few fetuses into the light of day and their labels are magically changed to babies.

Kermit Gosnell is such a benign name. It isn’t a Hannibal Lector name that would automatically conjure of images of horror. It’s almost a warm and fuzzy name because it is shared with one of our favorite frogs. It’s very, very normal, just like the word scissors. With scissors we cut out paper dolls and remove tightly-wound strands of ribbons from wrapped gifts. We also use them, it appears, to sever the spines of tiny babies. After all, seconds earlier, they were only fetuses. Is there a 5-second rule on this?

Critics of Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, argue that evil does not spring from passive, ignorant people blindly following the orders of their evil leaders; they say it comes from regular, everyday people becoming immersed in evil ideologies, and then acting in accord with those ideologies. Perhaps they are correct.

The Gosnell case has caused me to think anew about how we determine good and evil. If it is by legislation, then we can act morally (does that word even have a definition?) only to the degree that our legislators and judges inform us. At what point do we look around and examine our normals and discover that we’ve adopted a received morality and have slowly cooked in its cultural juices, like little Kermits in a kettle?

There are certain clues that should tip us off here. When various groups begin redefining our terminologies for us, we should put up our anttenae of suspicion. When pressure on legislators results in our lines of morality being shifted, we should ask a few questions.

In the 19th century, there were a number of state and federal supreme court cases related to slavery, several of which declared imported Africans to be under full control of their owners. One case denied protection under the constitution for those slaves and any of their descendants.

We’re all probably happy that someone challenged those views of normalcy. What the law seemed incapable of doing was ultimately accomplished by people with a moral compass.

Sometimes, when our courts rule and slaves are freed, women given equal legal status with men and so on, we might find that our so-called normals really did need to be shifted. But not always. And never without examination.

I’ve referenced this text of Scripture before, but I feel compelled to do it again:

Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you . . .” (Matthew 20:25-26)

When our leaders and the powerful lobbies that influence them inform us about what is good and right and legal, is the conversation over for we who follow Jesus? And I’m not only speaking of abortion (clearly that debate has never abated), but of questions regarding immigration, human trafficking, economic policies, and a number of others. Or, is there a point where we look beyond the lines of legislation and declare,

It will not be so among us.

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