The gruesome murder trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell has inflamed political 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 and women’s health.
If you are just tuning in to the Gosnell story, here is the ugly synopsis, from the 2011 grand jury report (emphasis added):
This case is 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. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels – and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it.
Let us say right up front that we realise this case will be used by those on both sides of the abortion debate. We ourselves cover a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion. For us as a criminal grand jury, however, the case is not about that controversy; it is about disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants. We find common ground in exposing what happened here, and in recommending measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again
As the grand jury anticipated, the Gosnell case brought the debate about abortion back into the national forefront, with both pro-choice and pro-life advocates claiming that the case is further evidence of their respective moral high ground.
At the centre of this blowup is the question of how Gosnell’s atrocities could have possibly gone on for so long. How could state authorities have allowed his “House of Horrors” to keep operating for decades, despite multiple complaints? And why did women keep going to his clinic, rather than seek out reputable abortion providers?
Both sides claim to have the answers. Here’s a brief breakdown of the arguments:
For pro-life advocates, Gosnell’s case is atrocious, but unsurprising — gruesome proof that stricter health regulations and oversight is needed to ensure safety at abortion clinics.
“We’ve been inundated lately with stories of negligence and even death,” Mallory Quigley, communications director at Susan B. Anthony List, told Business Insider. “The abortion industry cannot be prevailed upon to regulate itself.”
To that end, pro-life groups like SBA List have used the Gosnell trial to bolster support for new state laws that impose further restrictions on abortion clinics, including so-called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws that require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centres and often require abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges.
“One solution is to increase the standards that these clinics and facilities are held to,” Quigley said. “The types of legislation that we’re focusing on are precisely these types of common-sense measures that ensure health and safety standards for abortion clinics.”
To emphasise this point, pro-life advocates point to the fact that Gosnell’s clinic was not inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Health after 1993, when the agency decided to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all.
According to the report from the grand jury, this decision was made for “political reasons” because the state didn’t want to be “putting a barrier up to women” who wanted abortions. The board considered restarting inspections in 1999, but officials were concerned that abortion clinics wouldn’t meet inspection standards, resulting in fewer abortion facilities.
“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. 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.”
“Obviously we would like to see life protected at all stages of development, but that being said, since abortion is legal in the United States, we need to make sure that women are protected,” Higgins added. “I would think that Planned Parenthood and other abortion activists would stand with us to make sure that these clinics are protecting the dignity of women.”
Pro-choice activists are understandably defensive about the Gosnell case, and insist that he and his “House of Horrors” are outliers in what is otherwise a legitimate and safe field of medicine.
“We have consistently said that this is a horrifying and outrageous case, that Gosnell ran a criminal enterprise, not a health care facility, and that he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferraro said in a brief statement to Business Insider.
Still, pro-choice advocates say that the Philadelphia “House of Horrors” is also the tragic by-product of a hostile political climate that has driven legitimate abortion providers out of business and forced women to seek out low-cost butchers like Gosnell.
“We all thought we had said goodbye to the days of back-alley abortions,” said Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights program at the centre for American Progress. “The majority of abortions provided in this country are legal and safe. But there are people like Gosnell who take advantage of the polarised atmosphere and exploit women. So hopefully people will take away the right lessons from this case.”
According to Arons, TRAP laws are the result of a decades-long push by pro-life lobbyists to limit access to abortions at the state level. She explained that these laws put cumbersome architectural and bureaucratic restrictions on abortion clinics, forcing providers to comply with medical standards designed for far more complicated surgical facilities.
In the end, clinics are often unable to meet the requirements and are forced to shut down — which, of course, is the goal of these laws from the outset.
Laws requiring doctors to have hospital privileges are also a “catch-22,” Arons said, because hospitals are often reluctant to grant privileges to qualified abortion providers for fear of political backlash.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but these TRAP laws are actually pushing women into the hands of Gosnell,” Arons told Business Insider. “They are driving up the cost of abortion and they are driving legitimate abortion providers out of business.”
“The pro-life movement is trying to regulate abortion out of practice.”
It’s not that pro-choice advocates oppose inspections for abortion clinics, Arons added, but inspections frequently turn into “witch hunts” under state officials who oppose abortion.
“No one is saying that there should never be an inspection of a clinic, that there should never be oversight by the state,” Arons said. “But the solution is not to treat abortion care as different from other types of health care.”
So who’s right?
In reality, there is truth to both sides of the argument. Abortion is a polarising issue, and some state officials may allow their ideological views to affect their legislative and regulatory powers, rather than ensure a safe, dignified medical environment.
As Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) employee Janet Staloski said in her grand jury testimony, DOH lawyers “changed their legal opinions and advice to suit the policy preferences of different governors.”
Lost amid this politically-charged atmosphere are the women who are seeking abortions — and the doctors, like Gosnell, who use it as an opportunity to exploit them.
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