As headlines such as this — A bortion doctor found guilty of 3 counts of murder — have inundated my phone notifications, emails, and newsfeed recently, I grimace every time I see the words “abortion doctor” in such close proximity to those that read “guilty of murder.” Kermit Gosnell is not a doctor.
A doctor, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a person skilled or specializing in healing arts; especially one who holds an advanced degree and is licensed to practice.” This man, who unapologetically exploited women of disadvantaged socioeconomic status and, in his opinion, disadvantaged race, who turned medical tools into cold-blooded weapons, and who did not even hold a medical license, is not a doctor.
As a medical student, I resent that this man is deemed worthy of this title in the news. In medical school we study empathy, refine compassionate bedside manner, contemplate challenging ethical decisions and pledge to use these skills in our practice to, first and foremost, do no harm. If Gosnell ever learned any of these values or made this promise, he seems to have become progressively amnesic as his practice evolved to financial scheming and abhorrent murder.
As a woman, I am saddened at the thought of the pain the victims of Gosnell experienced. At the hands of this man, too many women were harmed, physically and emotionally. They were simply seeking a procedure that as many as one third of women will undergo in their lifetimes.
I am a future OB-GYN and abortion provider, two titles Gosnell unabashedly abused, and my heart fills with disdain and my eyes with tears as I think about the potential repercussions of this man’s actions on the profession I seek to enter and how the atrocities that occurred within the confinement of one disgraceful clinic in Philadelphia could dismantle the decades of effort to protect a woman’s reproductive freedom as well as the upstanding work of current abortion providers.
Gosnell’s actions have reopened doors that proponents of women’s choice have worked so hard to close, and he has threatened the integrity of the hundreds of licensed providers who perform safe, sanitary abortions with the compassion to counsel their patients through what might be the most difficult experience of their lives.
The tragedy that occurred in West Philadelphia illustrates what can happen when a woman’s ability to access an abortion is so restricted, whether by economic disadvantage, legal constraint, or geographical distance, that she must resort to a clinic practicing barbarianism—not medicine.
Gosnell has brought to life the image of abortion providers that the anti-choice movement has worked to create over the past 40 years, and they will likely use his example to advance their agenda. However, he is nothing like the abortion providers whom I know, and his practices are by no means representative of those that any true abortion provider would utilize or condone.
In fact, Gosnell more appropriately serves as the poster child for eliminating barriers to accessing abortion — not for increasing them — because when abortions are performed in a clinic that is clean and by a doctor who is licensed, the procedure is incredibly safe, with less than a 0.3 percent complication rate. And when women can access abortions easily, they often do not face the prospect of late-term abortions, which might force them to a clinic such as Gosnell’s due to that procedure’s illegality in many places.
The abortion providers I have met, and whose practices reflect those of the legitimate providers in the United States, embody the definition of a doctor. They are skillful masters of their profession, ethical in practice and compassionately devoted to healing.
Gosnell is none of these things. He is not a doctor, and it is an insult to the medical profession, and particularly to those doctors that dedicate their careers to ensuring women have access to safe abortions, to refer to him as such.
Lydia Fein is a medical student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.