Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lessons of Gosnell: 'The real trial has only just begun'

Philadelphia abortion provider Kermit Gosnell was convicted yesterday on three counts of first-degree murder (of newborn babies), one count of involuntary manslaughter (of a pregnant woman), 21 counts of illegal abortion (of unborn babies over 24 weeks) and more than 200 other crimes. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. Eight other members of Gosnell's staff pleaded guilty to various charges, four of them to murder.

According to the grand jury investigation and several weeks of court testimony, Gosnell routinely delivered living newborn babies and then killed them by jabbing surgical scissors into the back of their necks and severing their spinal cords. (The grand jury said Gosnell killed hundreds of infants this way, but he destroyed most of the records, so only three first-degree murders were proved in court.) The conditions of his clinic were disgusting and unsanitary; women were overdosed with drugs and treated by unlicensed staff, and at least two women died; aborted babies' bodies were stored in the refrigerator next to employee lunches, and severed baby body parts were collected in jars.

Gosnell's "house of horrors" was allowed to operate for many years because state officials turned a blind eye and chose not to inspect abortion facilities for political reasons (according to the grand jury report). Here in Minnesota, state officials do not license or inspect abortion centers at all, and MCCL-backed legislation to license abortion facilities in the same way as other outpatient surgical centers was vetoed in 2012 by Gov. Mark Dayton. This status quo has never been more indefensible. In the wake of Gosnell (as well as problems uncovered in numerous other abortion facilities around the country, including Texas-based Whole Woman's Health, which recently came to Minnesota), will pro-choice advocates like Dayton accept reasonable health and safety standards in abortion clinics? How could they not?

Abortion defenders say the lesson to be learned is that pro-life restrictions on abortion drive women to "back-alley butchers" like Kermit Gosnell. This argument is difficult to take seriously in an era of abortion on demand. And no one could have been driven to Gosnell had proper oversight shut him down or forced him to abide by the law—oversight that was obstructed by pro-choice politicians. (Regardless, the fact that submitting to the killing of an innocent human being may be hazardous to one's health provides no moral justification for making such killing easier.)

The Gosnell case also shines a light on the dark reality of late-term abortion in the United States, and reveals the need to ensure protection for infants and enforce the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. And it points to the graphic nature of killing babies, before birth or after, and the logically tenuous boundary between abortion and infanticide. As Princeton professor Robert P. George explains:
Dr. Gosnell is only the front man; and the real trial has only just begun. The defendant is the abortion license in America. The Gosnell episode highlights the irrationality of the regime of law put into place by the Supreme Court in 1973 and fiercely protected by Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the politicians they and other "pro-choice" advocacy groups help send to Washington and the state capitols. Something as morally arbitrary as a human being's location—his or her being in or out of the womb—cannot determine whether killing him or her is an unconscionable act of premeditated homicide or the exercise of a fundamental liberty. Yet something like that is the prevailing state of American law under Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Its incoherence and indefensibility have been laid bare by the prosecution of Dr. Gosnell. Whatever now happens to him, it will no longer be possible to pretend that abortion and infanticide are radically different acts or practices. If we are to condemn snipping the neck of a child delivered at, say, twenty-four or twenty-six weeks to kill him or her, how can we defend dismembering or poisoning a child in the womb at twenty-six, thirty, or even thirty-four weeks? And even more fundamentally, if we are bearers of inviolable dignity and a basic right to life in virtue of our humanity, and not in virtue of accidental qualities such as age, or size, or stage of development or condition of dependency—if, in other words, we believe in the fundamental equality of human beings—how can a right to abortion (where "abortion" means performing an act whose purpose is to cause fetal death) be defended at all?
The real trial has only just begun.