"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Thomas Jefferson

The Importance of Bearing Witness

Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA Read Comments - 12
Publish Date: 
Thu, 05/08/2014


There are childhood memories so penetrating, they run like movie reels in the mind’s eye, molding our character.


My vintage 8mm features my European-born grandmother turning tearful and tongue-tied upon mention of her family, lost in the Holocaust.  Her heartbreak, and the gruesome photos I ogled in my parents’ edition of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” were literally mind-boggling.


When I was thirteen, Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein appeared in my biopic, helping me Think Again about the unfathomable.


Like a narrator, she recounted her death-defying odyssey from an idyllic childhood through ghettos, slave-labor camps, and a three-month “death march” en route to liberation by the American officer who became her husband. 


Her story teaches that hope is powerful and morality is a choice – even in the face of monstrous evil. Most importantly, bearing witness to good and evil is the way a moral people deliver a better world to our children because, as fellow survivor Elie Wiesel stresses, “Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”


Without memory, there would also be no freedom, as Klein movingly reminded the star-studded audience upon winning the Oscar for her documentary “One Survivor Remembers.”


Recalling that in the camps “winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day,” she urged the glamorous crowd to honor the memory of “those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home,” by returning home aware that those “who know the joy of freedom are winners.”


Boredom was a luxury in Nazi Germany, where a door knock could herald a Gestapo arrest. That was German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fate after promoting truth to power, and trying to hold the powerful accountable to truth. Executed near war’s end, his famous exhortation endures: “Silence in the face of evil is evil…. Not to act is to act.”


Despite the efforts of humanitarians like Klein, Wiesel and Bonhoeffer, the obligation to speak and act out against inhumanity is not universally practiced -- especially when “women’s reproductive health” is at stake.


It’s unimaginable that any side of the reproductive health debate could tolerate the barbarity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his unlicensed staff who preyed on low-income and minority women.


Yet for 31 years, the public’s guardians -- regulators, politicians, and health care providers -- averted their eyes and abandoned their duties, allowing a virtual Dr. Mengele to openly and profitably operate an unsanitary, Auschwitz-like health facility in Philadelphia where countless women suffered maiming, infection or worse.


According to the grand jury report that advanced Gosnell’s murder conviction, he “regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy – and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors,” as did his employees. 


The grand jury faulted seemingly indifferent government officials who “literally licensed Gosnell’s criminally dangerous behavior” by refusing “to treat abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical facilities.” Their inaction was action, and a reminder that morality is a choice when otherwise ordinary people commit appalling acts, as in Nazi Germany.


Committed to telling the story both Hollywood and the media have avoided, witness-bearing journalists and filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are days away from completing the largest ever crowd-funding campaign for a movie. From donations averaging $95, they’ll have raised at least $2.1 million at www.gosnellmovie.com.


Like “In Cold Blood” – another true story about callous murderers – the filmmakers believe the story of Gosnell, America’s most prolific serial killer, will reverberate in the nation’s conscience.


Apparently the conscience of Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is stirring, after she rocketed to national stardom for filibustering legislation (later passed) designed to promote women’s reproductive health by preventing other Gosnell’s.


Less restrictive than European laws, the Texas bill includes an abortion ban after 20 weeks, with exceptions for fetal abnormalities and a threat to the woman’s life -- which Davis now favors. That Davis is evolving testifies to the power of bearing witness to society’s lessons.


In her famous commentary on the Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the conformist tendencies of people who don’t consider the consequences of their actions or inactions.  “The sad truth,” Arendt wrote, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”


My grandmother told a parable about a precocious boy who asked his rabbi whether a bird in his hand was dead or alive.  Hoping to inspire humanity, the rabbi replied, “I don’t know; it’s in your hands.”


Think Again – Isn’t remembering and telling stories the best way to influence the movie reels in our children’s minds, helping them make moral choices that fortify a healthy society?


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To the commenter who said

To the commenter who said this case is not about late-term abortions but about abortion access, I couldn't disagree more.

It is precisely about illegal activity that was justified so as not to limit abortion access. That's why Gosnell is serving a life sentence, having pleaded down from the death penalty. It's also why his former associates are serving time.

But in my opinion, Gosnell is not primary issue here. It's the public guardians entrusted with the citizen's safety. They abdicated their responsibilities and averted their eyes to crime -- for 31 years.

Moreover, there were workers who didn't know that it was illegal to snip the spines of live babies kicking on a gurney. This has nothing to do with a "women's right to choose." No woman has a right to choose to kill their newborn baby. Even Wendy Davis agrees with that, along with the ban after 20-weeks (with exceptions).

As I said in the column, there is no side of the abortion debate that could possibly sanction what happened. It happened because the former PA Governor Ridge decided to not regulate "women's health clinics," and because whistleblowers were ignored, even by the District Attorney. That's why we need stronger laws and regulations that can't be skirted by ideologically-motivated officials.

Before you default to the partisan talking points, and knowing you care about fairness and compassion, I urge you to scan the grand jury report, linked here:


Another good one, Melanie.

Another good one, Melanie. I'm no conservative but this truly resonated with me. You have a talent and do make people think again. Keep it up.

What a touching and important

What a touching and important piece you wrote. I'd sent out a note a few weeks back about the movie effort, and am sensing that a least a few thousand (which was more than we gave) went their way - very pleased about that.

My note to you is to touch on the media issue. Over the years, I came to understand that former Pres Jimmy Carter was rather staunchly pro-life. In fact, he says he never supported federal funding for abortions. Obviously, he didn't carry a big stick around advertising it . . but it does, to this day come up from time to time. What's consistent, however is that when Carter speaks out, our national media turns it's back.

I recall two instances, during the Bush administration, when Carter was being interviewed and was invited to attack Pres Bush, or pro-life folks, on the issue of abortion. It seems that either they forget, or never even knew Carter's views (proof of how biased they are). One was Larry King. King asked Carter a leading question looking for Carter to voice opposition to Bush regarding some abortion related issue. Carter began with something like, "well, you might recall that the issue of abortion is an area where the president and I see eye to eye on . . ." Well Carter went on and talked about his views . . but w/ Larry King looking like he'd seen a ghost. He literally started shrinking into his chair . . desperately looking for a way to get Carter to stop talking. When Carter finished, King simply changed the subject - not a chance that he would follow up on that.

Unfortunately, that is the way it has been for many many years. Our here in CA, my wife and I have off an on asked folks for their reactions to the Gosnell horror. These would generally be older mature intelligent well educated and "avid news folks (liberal)." Not one, who votes Democrat, has yet to know what the heck we were talking about. Not one. And, worse - only a few of the conservatives we asked, had actually heard about it. Now they know.

Back to Carter:

And from March 2012. While the national media was engaged in an all out war with Republicans about their woman hating pro-life views, President Jimmy Carter had this to offer:
I never have believed that Jesus Christ would approve of abortions and that was one of the problems I had when I was president having to uphold Roe v. Wade and I did everything I could to minimize the need for abortions. I made it easy to adopt children for instance who were unwanted and also initiated the program called Women and Infant Children or WIC program that’s still in existence now. But except for the times when a mother’s life is in danger or when a pregnancy is caused by rape or incest I would certainly not or never have approved of any abortions.

I’ve signed a public letter calling for the Democratic Party at the next convention to espouse my position on abortion which is to minimize the need, requirement for abortion and limit it only to women whose life are in danger or who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest. I think if the Democratic Party would adopt that policy that would be acceptable to a lot of people who are now estranged from our party because of the abortion issue.

Predictably, the national media never mentioned it. Sadly, conservatives never mentioned it either.

Therefore, it's not on the table in the discussion/debate.

In my opinion, the issue is

In my opinion, the issue is less Gosnell himself, and more the by-standers who knew about the carnage and did nothing -- for 31 years.

It's the public guardians who abandoned their duty to regulate and inspect and enforce the laws, and its the co-workers who didn't know it was murder to snip the spine of a kicking baby on a gurney. It's also the media who won't cover it.

In essence, Bonhoeffer was right -- "silence in the face of evil is evil." That's why this movie has to be made, to break the silence and bear witness so it can't happen again.

I wish Gosnell was the only

I wish Gosnell was the only one,but he's not.There are murder mills in Atlanta that are known to have murdered even more. (To name one place).

First, it is a tragedy that

First, it is a tragedy that women who are 6 months pregnant with viable babies believe their only choice is an illegal abortion -- which constituted the majority of Gosnell’s business. That's why women went to him instead of other clinics. If we really want to be a pro-choice society, women need to believe they have more choices, apart from breaking the law out of desperation.

Second, it is not the regulation that caused women to go to Gosnell, it is the lack of regulation that allowed him to offer illegal services that they wanted.

Please go to page 137 of the grand jury report to understand the role played by the public guardians, including Governor Ridge who changed the law in 1993 so abortion clinics would only be regulated in the event of a complaint. Here is an excerpt:

"Indeed, the department has shown an utter disregard both for the safety of women who seek treatment at abortion clinics and for the health of fetuses after they have become viable. State health officials have also shown a disregard for the laws the department is supposed to enforce. Most appalling of all, the Department of Health’s neglect of abortion patients’ safety and of Pennsylvania laws is clearly not inadvertent: It is by design.

Many organizations that perform safe abortion procedures do their own monitoring and adhere to strict, self-imposed standards of quality. But the excellent safety records and the quality of care that these independently monitored clinics deliver to patients are no thanks to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. And not all women seeking abortion find their way to these high-quality facilities; some end up in a filthy, dangerous clinic such as Gosnell’s. There the patients have to depend on DOH oversight to protect them – as do babies born alive, and helpless but viable fetuses after 24 weeks of gestation. Yet no protection is forthcoming."

Anyways, I looked through the

Anyways, I looked through the report and the things Gosnell did were truly horrific. You're right in that no one would argue about that. But we're talking about a very abnormal, and highly irregular, case here. To be succinct, Texas lawmakers cited the Gosnell case as the rationale for their legislation. All I am saying is that if the law provokes women to go to illicit, unregulated operations for their procedures, one needs to consider whether or not the law is truly accomplishing its "goal" of preventing women from going through the same pain the women who went to Gosnell endured.

I'm well aware that

I'm well aware that regulations that impose life-saving standards have a tendency to increase the cost of doing business. I would argue that environmental regulations fulfill similar purposes (and are probably more important in terms of quantifiable life savings), but you'd probably disagree with me. As for this issue, there's no question in my mind as to what lawmakers intended with this law. Safety was not the primary concern. The primary concern was restricting a woman's right to choose what she can do with her body and to make a political statement. Again, the results have already proven catastrophic and these impacts were publicized prior to the bill's passage. Planned Parenthood is doing what it can – but it's kind of hard when the state pulls your funding. This has nothing to do with late-term abortions. It has to do with access. No access equates to people taking matters into their own hands.

On a much more general note, in thinking about one of your last articles, why is it that Libertarians/Republicans so vehemently fight to keep government out of their mouths (free speech), their gun closets and their wallets, but reproductive organs are fair game? I've never been able to understand this because it's where things get murky in terms of what parties would normally stand for based on their stances on government control.

Wonderful, Melanie, just

Wonderful, Melanie, just wonderful.

Thanks for being a voice for humanity and against inhumanity like the abortion factories.

P.S. I quote Hannah Arendt and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my classes all the time

"Wendy Davis was opposed to

"Wendy Davis was opposed to the Texas legislation because of its implications on the number of abortion clinics in the state. With the law now enacted, it is expected that only six of the more than 40 clinics in the state will still be open by September."

Yes, regulations that impose life-saving standards have a tendency to increase the cost of doing business. Are you suggesting there shouldn't be protective regulations or that existing regulations shouldn't be enforced?

Gosnell was doing illegal post-24 week abortions. Are you suggesting that's ok?

Also, isn't aiding low-income, minority women the mission of Planned Parenthood, one of the largest non-profits in the world?

What ever happened to "abortion should be safe, legal with significant limits, and rare".....that used to be the Democrat position.

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