There is a grotesque irony in the way that anti-abortion activists are trying to use the Kermit Gosnell case to further restrict access to abortion in Virginia. It was, after all, the lack of such access that drove Karnamaya Mongar, the woman Gosnell has been charged with killing, to his filthy clinic in the first place.
In Virginia, where Mongar lived, abortion is set to play a major role in the gubernatorial race this fall, and conservatives seem to think they can use Gosnell against Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. This week, Women Speak Out Virginia, a PAC affiliated with the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, launched a new radio ad attempting to link McAuliffe to the disgraced doctor.
The Women Speak Out ad slams McAuliffe, who is running against Republican Ken Cuccinelli II, for opposing a stringent new law regulating abortion providers. It’s one of many such regulations around the country—often called TRAP laws, for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers—that have been among the most effective legislative tools for curtailing abortion. In the ad, the PAC accuses McAuliffe of being against “basic health and safety standards for some women’s health clinics that perform abortions.” Such clinics, it continues, “put their own interests above the health and safety of their patients.” In announcing the new spot, a spokeswoman for the group, which is paying $50,000 to air it over two weeks, made the Gosnell link explicit. “In light of Kermit Gosnell’s ‘house of horrors,’ it is an outrage that anyone who purports to care about women would oppose efforts to ensure that Virginia women are treated with basic dignity and respect,” she said.
This audacious bad faith is in keeping with the way the anti-abortion movement has been exploiting the Gosnell case. No one on any side of the abortion issue disputes the fact that, if the Gosnell grand-jury report is correct, his Philadelphia clinic was indeed a house of horrors. But Mongar, the woman Gosnell is accused of killing, ended up there because she couldn’t find a place to have an abortion in Virginia. Now the doctor’s alleged crimes are being used on behalf of laws that will hurt other women like her.
Mongar, a 41-year-old grandmother newly arrived in the United States from a Nepalese refugee camp, looked for a place to end her pregnancy, which was in its second trimester, closer to home. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week, according to her daughter’s tearful testimony at the trial, Mongar had been “turned away from two abortion clinics in Virginia and one in Washington, D.C., because she was too far along in her pregnancy.” Finally, someone referred her to Gosnell. She died of an overdose of Demerol, a sedative that, according to the grand-jury report, the doctor favored because it was cheap.
According to the grand-jury report, Gosnell preyed on women like Mongar who had nowhere else to go. He is said to have performed abortions on minors who wanted to avoid the state’s parental-consent laws and on women who didn’t want to endure mandated waiting periods. “Too young? No problem. Didn’t want to wait? Gosnell provided same-day service,” said the report. “The real key to the business model, though, was this: Gosnell catered to the women who couldn’t get abortions elsewhere—because they were too pregnant.”
In other words, Gosnell, if the charges against him are true, was a modern-day back-alley butcher. Women went to him because they were desperate and because safe, legal procedures weren’t available.
Which brings us back to TRAP laws like those that have just gone into effect in Virginia. These laws are not intended to make clinics safer, but to regulate them out of existence. They dictate things like the size of hallways, the number of parking spaces, and the kinds of air-conditioning systems clinics must use. On Saturday, Virginia’s Hillcrest Clinic, which has survived arson, a bombing, and a shooting by anti-abortion killer John C. Salvi III, closed its doors, unable to afford the nearly $500,000 it would have had to spend on renovations to comply with the new law.
If such regulations were necessary to preserve patients’ health, they would apply to other sorts of outpatient surgical facilities, but they don’t. As Dr. David Peters, a clinic owner in Norfolk, told The Virgnian-Pilot, “I can do plastic surgery. I can stick needles in babies’ lungs. I can put tubes up penises and into bladders ... with no regulations whatsoever. No government supervision. But for an abortion, I've got to have the sterile room—the size of the building matters—so, it just becomes nonsensical.”
Given the horrors alleged in the Gosnell case, increased regulation of abortion clinics probably seems entirely reasonable to a lot of people. It’s important to remember, though, that there are already a host of laws against the sort of hellish conditions that prevailed in what the grand-jury report called Gosnell’s “baby charnel house.” What Gosnell is charged with doing was and is illegal. It’s understandable that opponents of legal abortion are seizing on the gruesome details of his case–the instinctive revulsion they cause is politically powerful. But they shouldn’t be allowed to evade their responsibility for pushing women toward him.