By Jim Tonkowich
This week Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of three infants who were born alive in his clinic. In addition, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a patient and more than 200 other criminal counts.
As the Gosnell trial was going on, former employees of a Texas clinic came forward with stories even more gruesome than the testimony given in the Gosnell trial.
One of the former employees alleges that Dr. Douglas Karpen, when performing late-term abortions, “would sometimes deliver the babies feet first with the toes wiggling until he stabbed them with a surgical implement. At the moment the toes would suddenly splay out before going limp. Sometimes he would kill the babies by ‘twisting the head off the neck…’”
Meanwhile, a Delaware abortion clinic was temporarily closed after multiple botched abortions and conditions their staff regarded as unsanitary and unsafe. A North Carolina abortion clinic lost its license as well. The state cited conditions that “present an imminent danger to the health, safety and welfare of the clients and that emergency action is required to protect the clients.” This came on the heels of an inspection last December that found “dead insects, blood splatters and dirty surgical instruments.”
Disgusting, inhumane, vile, and any others of a host of possible adjectives could be used to describe all this, but let me suggest that the most apropos is “expected.”
Jay Budziszewski points out in his book What We Can’t Not Know that we have both a shallow conscience and a deep conscience. The shallow conscience is about feelings. If I tell a lie, I may feel guilty for doing what I know is wrong. On the other hand, I may not feel guilty. I may lie all the time and, as a result, my internal moral warning system no longer functions properly.
Deep conscience, by contrast, is not about what we feel. Deep conscience is about what we, because we are human, know. Whether I feel guilty about my lie or not, deep inside, because I am made in the image of God, I know lying is wrong. Budziszewski writes, “We sometimes imagine that to lack guilt feelings is to lack conscience, but deep conscience is knowledge, not feelings, and guilty knowledge darkly asserts itself regardless of the state of the feelings.”
Because we are human beings, our deep consciences know that taking innocent human life is always morally wrong. We may (and do) tell ourselves that this or that situation is “different,” or that sometimes tragically an innocent human must be killed for a greater good, or that the innocent whose life is being taken isn’t really or fully human. This can quiet our shallow consciences so that we’ll feel okay about the killing, but our deep consciences can’t be fooled. We know we’re telling ourselves lies and pretending they’re true.
The result is an interior distortion. Like Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, breaking the moral law — that is, sin — turns us, over time, into monsters. If Jesus is the pattern of true humanity (and he is), breaking the moral law, the law that our deep conscience can’t not know, distorts the image of God in us and thus makes us increasingly less human.
As we become less human, we begin to see others as less human as well. We view them as means rather than ends. And so someone who repeatedly murders innocents by abortion will eventually become unable to care for others and standards slip and slip and slip. The nature of sin and the way it operates on the soul makes Kermit Gosnell, Douglas Karpen, and who knows how many others as predictable as the sunrise.
In Evangelium Vitae (On the Inviolability of the Human Life), [John Paul II] wrote, “Not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.”
Here, too, is the opportunity the Gosnell case presents: It informs our national conscience and demands our urgent attention and action.
Of course, sin doesn’t only distort abortionists. All sin distorts our souls, makes us less human, and breaks down the love we owe one another. Our urgent attention and action to fight includes not only the sin of abortion, but sin of every kind — personal and corporate.
This blog post originally appeared as an article on the Religion Today website.