A Psychologist's Look at the Gosnell Case

Dr. Gregory Bottaro Speaks of Trauma, Healing, Dialogue

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A Philadelphia abortion doctor was found guilty Monday of three counts of first-degree murder. His crime was not seeking to kill the three babies, as abortion is legal in Pennsylvania through the 24th week of gestation, but killing them once they had already been removed from their mothers’ wombs. 

He was also found guilty of other crimes, including 21 counts of aborting past the Pennsylvania cut-off of 24 weeks, and involuntarily causing the death of a 41-year-old woman who sought a second-trimester abortion at his clinic, but died of an anesthesia overdose. 

The case of 72-year-old Kermit Gosnell has captured the attention of Americans on both sides of the abortion debate, with both pro-choice and pro-life leaders proposing that the horrors of his medical practice advance their own positions.

To consider the Gosnell trial and what it means for Americans, ZENIT contacted Dr. Gregory Bottaro, a psychologist practicing in Manhattan who received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a graduate school in Virginia that integrates Catholic philosophy and theology with psychology.

ZENIT: When reading about this case, one of the first things that jumps out is the gruesomeness of the details. As a psychologist, what’s your perspective on the level of horrific detail surrounding this case? Does the American people «need» to know how gruesome abortion really is? Or do the stories from that clinic have a de-sensitizing effect, making Gosnell seem like just another Hollywood character from the latest violent movie?

Bottaro: As a psychologist, I see events like the Gosnell trial in terms of «trauma.» In defining someone who can be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the APA says, «The person has experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. The person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.»

Publishing the level of horrific detail of this case is a necessary legal move, but can be psychologically precarious. There is also an important political reason for communicating the authentic horror of abortion. However, just like with pro-life signs showing mangled baby parts, great care should be taken for reality’s effect on people. The real horror is allowing abortion in the first place, not the communication of its details, so I think it is good for the American people to know what abortion really is as long as there is some care taken to be sensitive to those who suffer from the consequences of abortion in our society. The pro-life movement is good at pointing out how many of our generation and society at large have been affected by abortion, so I think it’s on us to also maintain a level of deep compassion when it comes to communicating about it.

As far as desensitizing, I don’t think that is possible for our culture (yet). There is a reason those anti-abortion signs are met with such violence — people still have something in their hearts telling them it’s evil. I’ve heard many anecdotal reports of people changing their minds about abortion because of this trial’s publicity.

ZENIT: We’re at the 40-year mark of legal abortion in the United States, meaning a whole generation has grown up with abortion as part of the culture. Yet, it’s still one of the most polemical issues of the day. How does Roe v Wade, and the ensuing debate, mark a whole culture?

Bottaro: I think it’s difficult to project a perspective that will be natural for our progeny. I think the tide is turning and abortion won’t be the issue it is today one hundred years from now. I know this parallel has been drawn many times, but it will be like asking our grandparents how racism marked their culture growing up. Some of them knew it was wrong, some of them fought against it, some of them hoped for a day when the dignity of every human life regardless of skin color would be unquestionably accepted. Yet some were too busy to be bothered with the issue, others didn’t realize how traumatic racism was, and many initially fought against equality. Yet even as laws were put in place to restore dignity to all people, the minds of many were (and are) still not convinced. Abortion is similar in many ways, only instead of segregation, we now permit the killing of the innocent. I don’t know how this marks us as a generation yet. How does racism mark our grandparents’ generation? I’m actually terrified for us. 

ZENIT: Some of the first media reports about the Gosnell trial focused precisely on the lack of reports about him — the so-called media blackout, which itself stirred a lot of debate. What were your thoughts on that interchange?

Bottaro: My immediate thought was thank God for social media. The era of liberal media bias and its hijacking of public opinion is quickly coming to an end. Public opinion will always be corrupt in some ways, but at least it will be our own fault. There will also be many opportunities for the minority to gain a voice, and often that is the voice of truth, goodness, and beauty.

I was then a combination of sickened and impressed by the way the major media outlets could spin anything. They can spring back from any type of scandal or criticism. 

It wasn’t quite enough though. I don’t think any of the networks thoroughly convinced anyone of being blameless. At the end of the day, there’s a newfound sense of freedom that rose up from Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds. I have to imagine the major networks are sleeping a little less.

ZENIT: Can the Gosnell trial be a springboard for dialogue despite the polemics of abortion?

Bottaro: Planned Parenthood cashed in on [yesterday’s] verdict and spun this case as a reason for increased legal access to abortions. As long as abortion is a multi-billion dollar business, the dialogue will be skewed. However, I don’t think abortion will end because of sweeping changes in public opinion. I think it will end one heart at a time. This is something I wrote about more extensively in my blog. The focus needs to be on individual hearts, not on public opinion in major headlines. It’s good to fight that fight; I don’t think anyone should give up trying to shift the laws in our country. But I also think it’s equally, if not more, important that individual hearts are changed. 

For that, I certainly think this trial is a springboard. It will also bring up a lot of pain for a lot of people. In my practice I see people who suffer as a result of abortion in ways people would never anticipate. Abortion doesn’t just kill a baby; it can also traumatize the mother, the father, the siblings, the grandparents, and anyone else that was connected to the killing. For every one child chosen to be killed, all of those people connected are walking around, or someday will be walking around, having dealt with «an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury.» 

The acceptance of abortion in our culture is trauma on a scale bigger than 9/11 or any tsunami, and professionals need to be prepared to treat those affected. As a culture, we need to be able to love them. That’s where the dialogue needs to go as a result of this trial.

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Kathleen Naab

United States

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