After weeks of brutal testimony, a heartbreaking and horrifying parade of the inhumanities of which human beings are capable, Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia has been found guilty of three out of four counts of first degree murder. The jury has ruled that he did indeed induce the birth of viable infants, and then snip their spinal cords with scissors to ensure that they would not live. Like most of you, I would rather I'd never read the grisly accounting of his misdeeds . . . because these terrible things had not happened.
I staunchly oppose the death penalty, so I hope that Gosnell gets life when he is sentenced next week. But I cannot help but notice that if he did get death, he would be killed under higher standards of sanitation and medical care than he himself observed. And treated with more dignity and kindness than the viable newborns he butchered and discarded. How did we come to enforce higher standards on state sponsored murder than on abortion clinics?
Having read the grand jury report, I have to say this to my fellow pro-choicers: we helped create that situation. Not intentionally or knowingly, and not because being pro-choice means you want to kill babies. But we focused so hard on access that we failed our equal responsibility to think about safety--and the danger of rogue abortionists who were terminating viable infants. (The murder charges involved infants who were born alive, but Gosnell was also convicted of over 20 illegal late term abortions, which aren't morally much different from killing them in the open air.)
I was rather astonished to find, when I went to their website today, that NARAL Pro-Choice America thinks that Pennsylvania abortion providers are excessively burdened by health and safety regulations. The grand jury report on the Gosnell case indicates that the exact opposite is true:
But at least the department had been doing something up to that point, however ineffectual. After 1993, even that pro forma effort came to an end. Not because of administrative ennui, although there had been plenty. Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor Casey to Governor Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased, even though, as Gosnell proved, that meant both women and babies would pay.
The only exception to this live-and-let-die policy was supposed to be for complaints dumped directly on the department’s doorstep. Those, at least, would be investigated. Except that there were complaints about Gosnell, repeatedly. Several different attorneys, representing women injured by Gosnell, contacted the department. A doctor from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia hand-delivered a complaint, advising the department that numerous patients he had referred for abortions came back from Gosnell with the same venereal disease. The medical examiner of Delaware County informed the department that Gosnell had performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year-old girl carrying a 30-week-old baby. And the department received official notice that a woman named Karnamaya Mongar had died at Gosnell’s hands.
Yet not one of these alarm bells – not even Mrs. Mongar’s death – prompted the department to look at Gosnell or the Women’s Medical Society. Only after the raid occurred, and the story hit the press, did the department choose to act.
Just to put that in perspective: this decision was made 20 years ago, when I was a college student going to pro-choice events in Philadelphia. According to the grand jury, nothing much has changed since. This is deeply, deeply troubling. Governor Ridge's office probably did not spontaneously decide to stop inspecting abortion clinics; presumably, this was a reaction to political pressure from groups that I was out marching for. And to state the obvious, Gosnell's madhouse was not what I was marching for.
I spent quite a bit of time today with NARAL's website, and frankly, a lot of it is troubling. The complaint about excessive regulation of abortion clinics is one of a number of items under the "anti choice laws" section . . . including a lament that healthcare workers cannot be forced to provide abortions. This is a rather astonishing use of the word "choice". The general philosophy animating their list of "anti-choice" and "pro-choice" regulations seems to be that the state should pay for abortions, as well as forcing private insurers to cover them and healthcare workers to provide them, but otherwise take no interest in any other aspect, such as whether the decision to abort is informed, or the clinic is, clean, safe, and reasonably close to an emergency room that can take a patient who experiences complications.
Of course it's true that health and safety regulations can be used as a backdoor means to achieve a de-facto ban on a constitutionally protected right. But that doesn't actually seem to be the issue in Pennsylvania, does it? Planned Parenthood alone has 41 clinics, and even if you think there should be more, it's clearly not Pennsylvania's excessive sanitary standards that are holding them back.
Back when I was out there marching on City Hall, I thought we were out there to make sure that no more women died from incompetent abortions performed by quacks in filthy surroundings. Instead, it seems we may have inadvertently facilitated it, along with Gosnell's murder of live infants. The responsibility for these grave crimes of course lies with those who committed them. But those of us who want to keep abortion legal also have a special responsibility to make sure that it is safe, and that viable infants are protected. We should never have been fighting tough inspection standards in order to preserve access. Instead, we should have been fighting for the high standards that make access meaningful--and politically viable. If we don't take the lead on policing the quacks and the outlaws, then it will be done for us. And we will not like the results.