More on Gosnell

Politics Daily editor (and Commonweal columnist) Melinda Henneberger has a strong piece at PD on "Kermit Gosnell's Pro-Choice Enablers." She digs into the grand jury report (which, by the way, makes for accessible but very disturbing reading) to summarize the horrors of the case -- and believe me, they're not easy to summarize. Henneberger focuses especially on how under-regulated and unsafe Gosnell's clinic was. Site reviews by the Pennsylvania Department of Health had noted violations in 1989, 1992 and 1993, but Gosnell did nothing to address them (besides paying his fine). The direct connection to prochoice politics comes after that, and was made by the grand jury itself:

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 [Bob] Casey to Governor [Tom] 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.

"This is where those of you who are pro-choice may well want to cross your arms over your chest," Henneberger writes, "but the kind of regulation that if enforced might have prevented this atrocity is in all cases seen as an infringement by abortion rights advocates, and thus is strenuously opposed."

Is this what decades of political jockeying have wrought? The real goal for prolifers, after all, is not so much restricting access to abortion as it is convincing people that killing human life in the womb is wrong. Or so it seems to me. Are we making progress?At Slate, William Saletan has written a follow-up to his last column (which I posted about here), responding to prochoice writers "who think [he has] misunderstood the Gosnell case and its lessons." He concedes many of their points, and some are thought-provoking -- for example, do mandatory waiting periods make late-term abortions more likely? Do they "just increase the development of the fetus that will be destroyed"? He also counters some of the prochoice arguments that don't live up to the statistics. His takeaway is obviously not identical to mine (I don't, for example, think early abortions are much preferable to late ones), but it is serious and thorough. And he still wants an answer to the question the case raised for him: do the prochoice "absolutists" he referred to in his earlier piece still think late-term abortions should be permitted without limits? "How long should the abortion decision clock be allowed to run?" he asks. "Is there some point at which a decent society must simply forbid a practice? If killing a viable fetusa baby that no longer needs a womb to surviveisn't such a practice, what is?"What keeps haunting me is the fact that these women went to Gosnell's clinic thinking they were going to have an abortion, but they ended up actually giving birth. It's hard for me to see an important distinction between a baby killed while still inside the birth canal and one killed while fully out. What makes Gosnell so particularly monstrous ("the sort of unscrupulous abortion mill operator youd find in a Jack Chick comic," Chris Lehmann wrote at The Awl) is that, by all accounts, he didn't see a difference either. But those mothers -- if they hadn't been drugged and sedated beyond comprehension at the times of the births and the subsequent killings, which for their sakes I hope they all were -- I have to think they would have seen a difference. It's horrible to contemplate. Still, I wonder, how do we get from there -- from acknowledging that killing born, breathing-on-their-own babies is murder, which everyone but Gosnell (and his staff) seems to understand -- to making the world in general see the importance of protecting human life at any stage? Not, I am pretty certain, with the Jack Chick approach; not by pointing to this outrageous case and saying, "You see, all abortionists are amoral monsters." Not by fulfilling the most negative stereotypes of what "prolife radicals" are like, not by bad-faith arguing or gloating, not by congratulating ourselves for being right all along. Reinforcing the factions in this stalemate doesn't seem likely to get us anywhere. What will?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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