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Why We Need to Talk About the Horrifying Gosnell Abortion Trial

His business was able to thrive because of limited access to reproductive choice, not because of reproductive choice itself.


Philadelphia abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell is accused of running a clinic straight out of the Saw horror franchise: standard practices allegedly included snipping the spines of live newborns with rusty equipment, storing feces in cat-food containers and fetus feet in jars, and overdosing patients, particularly those who were poor women of color. Make no mistake: if these charges are correct, Gosnell is a monster. But his business was able to thrive because of limited access to reproductive choice, not because of reproductive choice itself.

From the pages of the grisly  grand jury report detailing the case against 72-year-old Dr. Kermit Gosnell, accused of  murdering one woman and seven infants (Here's a good  chronological recap from Philadelphia Weekly's Tara Murtha if you want more background):

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.

Anti-abortion advocates, naturally, are thrilled that Gosnell is on trial. Horrified along with the rest of us, but thrilled at a chance to argue that this case illustrates how unspeakably disgusting abortion is using the most visceral evidence imaginable. "This is not about being 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life,'" Kristen Powers argues in a  USA Today op-ed that seems to have drawn significant national attention to the case for the first time since Gosnell's "Women's Medical Society" was raided in early 2010. "It's about basic human rights."

But this case is all about the difference between supporting and blocking reproductive choice. 

First, it's important to remember no one (besides his lawyer) is on Gosnell's side.Infanticide is illegal in all 50 states, and Pennsylvania law prohibits abortions after 24 weeks; Gosnell told the authorities that at least 10 to 20 percent of the fetuses found in his clinic were probably older than 24 weeks in gestation. Prosecutors  believe Gosnell killed live babies because he wasn't giving women the correct drugs that would have terminated them in the womb. His assistants were often  unlicensed and untrained. He was  was not a certified obstetrician or gynecologist. No one thinks the Women's Medical Society was a shining bastion of women's health care. We all want him behind bars.

But Gosnell doesn't represent or stand for abortion care in any way. Abortion, done right, is a safe medical procedure; according to the  Guttmacher Institute, fewer than 0.3% of abortion patients ever experience a complication that requires hospitalization. The Gosnell Grand Jury Indictment notes that legitimate providers like Planned Parenthood and members of the National Abortion Federation follow the law and standard medical procedures. Here's how Women's Medical Society is described in the report:

The clinic reeked of animal urine, courtesy of the cats that were allowed to roam (and defecate) freely. Furniture and blankets were stained with blood. Instruments were not properly sterilized. Disposable medical supplies were not disposed of; they were reused, over and over again. Medical equipment – such as the defibrillator, the EKG, the pulse oximeter, the blood pressure cuff – was generally broken; even when it worked, it wasn’t used. The emergency exit was padlocked shut. And scattered throughout, in cabinets, in the basement, in a freezer, in jars and bags and plastic jugs, were fetal remains.

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