No more 'houses of horror' after Gosnell verdict

Chicago TribuneMay 14, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday:

For anyone who thinks abortion should not be legal, Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic was a nightmare almost beyond imagination – dirty and vile-smelling, with bloodstained furniture, unsterilized equipment and containers filled with the body parts of dismembered fetuses.

Worse yet was what went on there: illegal late-term abortions – performed by someone untrained in obstetrics – in which some babies were delivered only to be killed with a snip of scissors to the spinal cord. The doctor, according to an assistant, joked that one baby was big enough to walk to the bus stop. Describing the facility as a “house of horrors,” the district attorney engaged in understatement.

On Monday, after a five-week trial, Gosnell was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of three infants, as well as one count of involuntary manslaughter involving a patient who died of a drug overdose while getting an abortion. He could get the death penalty.

For those who favor abortion rights, though, it was also a sickening spectacle. NARAL Pro-Choice America expressed relief that Gosnell “will pay the price for the atrocities he committed.” His clinic was a far cry from the sort of care abortion-rights advocates envision for women with unwanted pregnancies.

Those who favor curbing or eliminating legal abortion think this trial will force Americans to reassess the entire issue by reminding them of the grim facts about what abortion destroys. But those on the other side say it illustrates the perils of restricting or outlawing the procedure, which they believe will force desperate women into illegal abortions by “back-alley butchers.”

It’s not likely many minds were changed by the trial. Americans have always been deeply torn about abortion. On one hand, Gallup finds that 58 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases. On the other, only 29 percent want the Supreme Court to reverse its 1973 decision establishing it as constitutionally protected.

The trial highlights the issues surrounding late-term abortion, which most states already forbid, with varying exceptions. But Gosnell’s ghastly example offers no clear guidance, since Pennsylvania’s ban on abortions after 24 weeks didn’t deter him. The Supreme Court has upheld a ban on “partial-birth abortion.” But it has also said that states may not forbid abortions that are needed to protect the health of the mother.

It is possible to see through the charged political rhetoric to identify reasonable responses to what occurred in Gosnell’s facility. One is thorough state regulation of abortion clinics – not to make it harder for women to get legally allowed procedures, but to ensure appropriate standards of safety and sanitation.

Another is educating adolescents and adults about both abstinence and contraception, while promoting access to safe methods of birth control. Governments can also facilitate efforts to offer pregnant women alternatives, such as adoption.

All of these options can address the concerns of both sides. The trick is to keep them from becoming mere proxies for the battle over if and when abortion is ever acceptable. After all, few people applaud when a woman (or girl) becomes pregnant against her wishes. No one gains from filthy, sloppy medical facilities. And there’s no benefit in depriving pregnant women of other choices that may make abortion less attractive.

President Bill Clinton’s stated policy came close to representing a public consensus. Abortion, he said over and over, should be “safe, legal and rare.” Advancing that goal would do much to accommodate the concerns of those who support and oppose abortion rights. It would also help to prevent the next Kermit Gosnell.

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