Have you heard about Kermit Gosnell? That should be a familiar name even in Canada, and yet there's a good chance you're hearing it for the first time and have never read anything about his horrific crimes.

Gosnell is a convicted murderer. He was sentenced in a Philadelphia court last week to life without parole for the first-degree murders of three babies.

The grand jury report issued before the trial said Gosnell probably killed many more babies, but there was insufficient evidence for additional murder prosecutions. There were other charges, but let's stick with the murders.

Gosnell was a licensed abortion provider in Philadelphia. The victims were the infants who survived botched late-term abortions, past Pennsylvania's 24-week limit, performed in the filthy, run-down conditions of his clinic called The Women's Medical Society.

The case was not about late-term abortion or fetal rights. It was about murder, and the outcome was never going to have an impact on abortion laws in America.

But just as clearly, it raised morally difficult issues.

The procedure itself is necessarily different from early-term abortions and, even when it's done properly, the result is more grisly.

The hard question — some call it "the geography" question — can make the most pro-choice advocates uneasy: Why is the same procedure considered murder when it's performed on one side of the uterus but not when it's performed on the other?

'House of horrors'

The grand jury report is such a disturbing document that I found it impossible to read without frequent breaks to gather my thoughts and emotions.

It begins: "This is a case about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women. What we mean is that 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."

It goes on to describe a clinic that reeked of animal urine from the mangy cats that roamed freely in rooms that were littered with blood-stained furniture and sheets.

It notes jars and jugs and plastic bags everywhere stuffed with fetal remains. "It was a baby charnel house," the report says. The press labelled Gosnell's clinic the "House of Horrors."

In testimony before a Pennsylvania state Senate committee, the Philadelphia District Attorney's office said it had evidence that on at least one occasion, clinic staff had played with a baby "for several minutes" before "a worker" did exactly what Dr. Gosnell did and "snipped the back of the neck."

This is horribly gruesome. Normally it would easily qualify for saturation media coverage of the type accorded the murder trial of Jodi Arias in Arizona.

She was on trial for the murder of her ex-lover at the same time Gosnell was in court for murdering babies in Philadelphia. But that level of media coverage didn't happen.

A handful of commentators pointed out that media treatment of the Gosnell trial never came close to matching the breathless reporting of every sensational detail of Arias's sex life and the vicious manner in which she killed her victim.

Pretty soon after the Gosnell trial began, there were awkward questions about a perceived media double standard.

The media debate

Was there a reluctance to cover a story that forced viewers and readers to consider how thin can be the line between late-term abortion and murder?

Writing in USA Today in April, Kirsten Powers weighed in about what she saw as an ideologically motivated decision by big media organizations to simply look the other way as the Gosnell trial unfolded.


The more normal media coverage? A pro-choice demonstrator shouts across the street in San Francisco as hundreds of anti-abortion protestors marched in their annual Walk for Life in January. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

She smelled a cover-up and called it a disgrace. "You don't have to oppose abortion rights to find late-term abortion abhorrent or to find the Gosnell trial eminently newsworthy.

"This is not about being 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life.' It's about basic human rights," she wrote.

Almost immediately, Irin Carmon at Salon fired back that Powers was pushing conservative claptrap.

There was no cover-up, she said, and anyone who had really been paying attention would know that.

She included links to numerous pieces from a wide range of media that had reported the story.

But in almost every case, the stories she cited were from 2011, the year Gosnell was charged. She didn't really knock down Powers's point that the trial itself had somehow been left off the daily news agenda.

A broader story

This media debate seemed to have some effect. Soon there was more coverage of the trial.

But the spotlight had illuminated some awkward questions about editorial decision-making when a story is about abortion.

While the Gosnell case is a vivid example of the back-alley horrors that women can face if they don't have alternatives (or believe they don't have alternatives), that reality was trumped by the image of living, kicking, screaming babies delivered and then murdered with scissors.

In that sense, it was a rare challenge to the media consensus that the issue is one of women's rights and a boost to the (anti-abortion) side that has struggled to frame it as one of human rights.

Most Americans and most Canadians appear to believe abortion is both, or rather they believe it is first one and then the other, a woman's right, then a human right, gestating along with the pregnancy.

That may be how most reporters see it, too. But it's not often covered that way.

As Melinda Henneberger wrote in the Washington Post after a survey of her newsroom colleagues, "I say we didn't write more [about Gosnell] because the only abortion story most outlets ever cover in the news pages is every single threat or perceived threat to abortion rights."

We all have our views about abortion. Those of us in the media also have our views about what constitutes a news story.

There is no doubt that if the Gosnell case had been about fetal rights, then reporters and satellite trucks would have surrounded the Philadelphia courthouse from start to finish, and rightly so.

But why not more interest in how it was even possible for a legally operating clinic in America to descend into the "house of horrors" that the "Women's Medical Society" became, and why women would feel they had no choice but to put their lives in the murderous hands of a Kermit Gosnell?