How The Kermit Gosnell Trial Reignited The Push To Ban Abortion

Dr. Kermit Gosnell

A jury began deliberations Tuesday in the grisly murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, the 72-year-old Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of murdering four live fetuses by “snipping” their spinal cords after botched abortions. 

Over seven weeks of stomach-turning testimony, witnesses for the prosecution detailed Gosnell’s “house of horrors,” a clinic in which venereal diseases were spread through dirty instruments, feral cats roamed around operating rooms, and fetuses were stashed in empty juice cartons and shoeboxes.

According to the prosecution, these atrocities went undetected by state health inspectors, who visited the clinic just three times, and unreported by other abortion providers, who knew of Gosnell’s reputation and even visited the clinic.

The case has predictably inflamed passions on both sides of the abortion debate, both for its horrific content and for the potential policy implications that the trial could have on abortion rights. 

To anti-abortion activists, the trial and its gruesome details have presented a rare opportunity to dislodge entrenched positions in the abortion debate. While polling shows that a majority of Americans support legal abortions, those same surveys show that most Americans also believe that late-term abortions — the central issue of the Gosnell trial — should be banned. 

“Kermit Gosnell’s horrifying crimes are proof positive that babies are in fact born alive during failed abortions,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a recent statement. “What is the difference between killing a baby minutes before delivery compared to moments after? Only the barest of legal nuances.” 

Seizing on this public squeamishness with late-term abortions, pro-life activists have used the Gosnell case to draw attention to make an aggressive push for new abortion regulations at the state and federal level.

“The fact that this facility existed is not surprising to me — I’m glad that he was caught, but I’m worried that other clinics are also going uninspected, not only in Pennsylvania but in other states,” said Anna Higgins, director of the Family Research Council’s centre for Human Dignity.

“The reason is that we have governments that refuse to hold abortion clinics to the same standards as any other medical clinic,” Higgins added. “We need to make sure that not only are regulations passed, but that they are enforced. If that means that abortion clinics need to meet these standards, than that’s what needs to happen.”

In the past three weeks alone, anti-abortion groups have used the grisly details to rally support for new abortion clinic regulations in Virginia, renew momentum for a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, D.C., and draw attention to unsafe conditions at Planned Parenthood clinics in other states. 

On Sunday — one day before the closing arguments in the Gosnell trial — the anti-abortion group Live Action released secretly-taped videos of staff members at two East Coast abortion clinics making alarming comments about late-term abortion. (The validity of these videos has since been called into question.) 

The public backlash against Gosnell — and late-term abortions in general — has put pro-choice activists on defence. 

They claim, correctly, that late-term abortions (beyond 20 weeks) are extremely rare, accounting for just 1 per cent of the procedures performed in the U.S. And they argue that Gosnell is a criminal outlier in what is otherwise a safe and legitimate medical field.

Moreover, pro-choice activists fear that further regulations on abortion clinics will further marginalize the procedure, forcing poor and disadvantaged women to seek out back-alley providers like Gosnell.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but these laws are actually pushing women into the hands of Gosnell,” said Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights program at the centre for American Progress. “They are driving up the cost of abortion and they are driving legitimate abortion providers out of business.” 

“No one is saying that there should never be an inspection of a clinic, that there should never be oversight by the state,” Arons added. “But the solution is not to treat abortion care as different from other types of health care.” 

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