The State of the Culture of Death

The Gosnell case and what Roe has wrought

Shortly before the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision in January, a grand jury in Pennsylvania charged longtime Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell with seven acts of infanticide and the killing of one adult—a vivid illustration of the unfolding civilizational damage and cheapening of life that Roe continues to cause.

Abortion-rights advocates were eager to dismiss the story as an aberration and return to their nostalgic remembrances of the Roe ruling. But in truth the indictment throws awful light on the inevitable consequences of Roe’s pervasive abortion culture. Contrary to the popular slogan, abortion is not “safe” and “rare” in America but unsafe and frequent, resulting in cases like this one. Legal abortion since Roe hasn’t eliminated the horrors of the “back alley” but brought them to Main Street. Gosnell’s callousness is just a more explicit and obvious example of a disregard for life that exists at more “respectable” abortion clinics across the country.

Though Roe technically permits some restrictions on abortion, the ethos behind it has gradually weakened those restrictions in practice; the “right to choose” now means for many in the abortion industry the right to choose every type of abortion, including lateterm ones that border on or sometimes become infanticide. The lax oversight of late-term abortionists like Gosnell is not an accident; it is an outgrowth of the “sacred” space and respect accorded to those who seek and provide abortion under a Roe-dominated culture.

The Gosnell case, as the Pennsylvania grand jury noted, did not happen in an ideological vacuum. According to its report, an abortion-rights atmosphere in Pennsylvania explains the state’s unwillingness to investigate abortion clinics like his: “[t]he 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. Even nail salons in Pennsylvania are monitored more closely for client safety.”

A known figure in the abortion industry, Gosnell killed countless unborn children for more than three decades, earning sometimes more than a million dollars a year. The grand jury report found that Gosnell “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.” Investigators found remains of fetuses scattered throughout his clinic, with some even stored in the staff refrigerator. Many people in Philadelphia knew about this, including a representative from the National Abortion Federation, but no one initiated a state investigation. What finally stopped Gosnell was a prescription drug raid completely unrelated to abortion.

In a time when late-term abortionists are sometimes romanticized by prochoicers as fearlessly defiant providers of a stigmatized but needed service, in a time when pro-choicers worry far more about what is said inside crisis pregnancy centers than what is done inside abortion clinics, figures like Gosnell are bound to exist.

Some abortion-rights advocates have agreed that the horrors contained within his clinic should lead to better oversight of abortion providers. But the case has not led them to consider the grisly nature of abortion itself. Whatever disgust they feel for Gosnell is more aesthetic than moral, more directed at his treatment of female patients than unborn children.

Indeed, many abortion-rights advocates defend the late-term abortions that largely defined his practice. The journalist William Saletan has noted that leading “reproductive rights activists” in recent times have made explicit their support for abortions at any stage. “Is there anything qualitatively different about a fetus at, say, 28 weeks that gives it a morally different status to a fetus at 18 weeks or even eight weeks?” Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has asked. “Why should we assume later abortions are ‘bad’—or, at least, ‘more wrong’ than early ones?”

Abortion-rights advocates Steph Harld and Susan Yanow say: “Women have no obligation to make a decision as soon as they possibly can. The only obligation women have is to take the time they need to make the decision that is right for them. Don’t we believe that women are moral decision makers, and carefully consider their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy?”

Saletan quotes Marge Berer, editor of Reproductive Health Matters, as saying that “an abortion provider must never pass judgment on the validity of a woman’s need for an abortion,” but “should act as technicians with a clinical skill to offer.” She concludes that “anyone who thinks they have the right to refuse even one woman an abortion can’t continue to claim they are pro-choice.”

Kermit Gosnell would certainly agree. He took any case that came to him. He offered his clinical skill to one and all. And he performed the late abortions that pro-choicers urged George W. Bush not to ban. It is no wonder that at his bail hearing Gosnell expressed puzzlement not to the charge of killing an adult patient but to the charge of killing seven babies. “Is it possible you could explain the seven counts?” he asked. In a Roe-ravaged culture, the answer to his question is not very clear.

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