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The Lesson of Kermit Gosnell

Why the House is voting on a bill restricting post-viability abortions.

11:04 AM, Jun 18, 2013 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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What was the lesson of the Kermit Gosnell trial? Since the Philadelphia doctor was convicted last month of murdering three born-alive infants, two competing viewpoints have emerged.


Kermit Gosnell


For some, like Senate majority leader Harry Reid and national abortion-rights organizations, the Gosnell case highlighted the need for "clean and sterile" late-term abortion clinics.

For others, the real atrocity of the Gosnell clinic wasn't simply its squalor, but the horror of killing babies old enough to "jump" and "scream" when stabbed in the neck with a pair of scissors, regardless of their location.

"[T]here's almost no difference between killing a baby accidentally born alive in a late-term abortion, as Gosnell stands accused of, and killing the same baby in the womb, as more skilled doctors can do," wrote liberal, pro-choice Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson

"What we need to learn from the Gosnell case is that late-term abortion is infanticide," wrote liberal, pro-life Daily Beast columnist Kirsten Powers. "Legal infanticide."

Though Gosnell was convicted, thousands if not tens of thousand of elective late-term abortions, or legal infanticides, occur every year in America.  

Just take the example of what's happening in Maryland. Dr. LeRoy Carhart says he will perform "purely elective" abortions 28 weeks into pregnancy. Another late-term abortionist named James Pendergraft has suggested he'll perform even later abortions under Maryland's health exception if a mother was experiencing "anxiety and stress."

In August 2010, police searched a Maryland abortion clinic owned by a man named Steven Brigham after a woman was severely wounded during an abortion procedure. Police officers were shocked when they found a "chest freezer in the facility, which contained approximately 35 late term fetuses," according to a report by the Maryland State Board of Physicians. "The latest fetal age is measured as being 36 weeks."

36 weeks. That's nine months.  

"The forms list other later term abortions involving fetal ages of 28, 20, 33 and 35 weeks," the report continued.

Brigham was charged with murder under Maryland's fetal homicide law. But the prosecutor dropped the charges because he said he couldn't prove whether the babies had died in New Jersey, where Brigham began the procedure, or Maryland, where it was completed. "We know what the doctors did. We just don't know where they did it," State's Attorney Edward "Ellis" D.E. Rollins III said, according to the Baltimore Sun. Rollins said a medical expert changed his determination that the deaths had occurred in Maryland after facing pressure "from [the expert's] colleagues in the late-term abortion community."

It's also possible the charges were simply dropped because Maryland's fetal homicide law has an exemption for abortion doctors, and it wasn't clear whether Brigham, who was unlicensed in Maryland, or an assistant who was licensed, performed the abortions. So, today, Brigham is a free man.

How many late-term abortions are legally carried out by men like Brigham, Pendergraft, and Carhart every year in the United States, and why do they occur?

We don't know the precise figure, but it certainly numbers in the thousands and likely in the tens of thousands. "Some of the jurisdictions with the most liberal abortion policies have no reporting requirements--for example, California, Maryland, and D.C.--or do not collect data on stage of pregnancy (Florida, for example)," says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee. 

According to Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, elective late-term abortions never occur. "No woman carries their child to six, seven, eight months and then one day decides they don’t want to become a parent,” Hogue told the New York Times. That sounds plausible. Who would do such a thing?

But a recent study contradicts Hogue's claim. "Diana Greene Foster, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and the University of California, San Francisco, co-authored a forthcoming paper looking at more than 200 women who had abortions after 20 weeks for nonmedical reasons," wrote Michelle Goldberg in the Daily Beast. "According to Foster, two thirds of them were delayed while they tried to raise money to pay for a termination. Twelve percent were teenagers, some of whom went months without realizing they were pregnant." The fact that one professor could find a sample of 200 women who had late-term abortions for "nonmedical reasons" indicates that the total number of elective late-term abortions is quite large. 

Foster looked at what happened to women who had wanted a late-term abortion but missed their clinic's self-imposed or state-imposed deadlines. "About 5 percent of the women, after they have had the baby, still wish they hadn’t. And the rest of them adjust," she told the New York Times

The House of Representatives is now set to vote this afternoon on a measure that would rein in the regime of late-term abortion-on-demand by prohibiting most abortions after 22 weeks in pregnancy (20 weeks after conception), the point at which some babies can survive long-term if born.

"I'm here because it's easy for me to imagine these babies at 20 to 24 weeks post-fertilization age because they are my patients in the NICU," Dr. Colleen Malloy of Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine testified before Congress in 2012. "You can see the detail in the face," she said, showing a picture of an ultrasound. "You can see the movements--the 4D ultrasound images that we have now are real time images of babies kicking, moving, sucking their thumb--doing all the things babies do." 

The House bill has an exception for when a physical health condition puts the life of the mother at risk. An exception for late-term abortions when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest was added last week. Even if you believe on principled and/or prudential grounds that there should generally be an exception in these cases, it does not follow that the exception should extend through the ninth month of pregnancy. But the additional exceptions were included when false Democratic attacks on Rep. Trent Franks risked scuttling the entire bill. 

So what argument, grounded in fact, do opponents have left to oppose the bill? Many will point out that the bill does not have an exception for aborting late-term babies with disabilities, or "fetal abnormalities," as they like to call them. Most of these cases can be detected before 22 weeks, and as for cases when disabilities are not detected until later than 22 weeks, pro-choice politicians should be asked why exactly a viable Down Syndrome baby deserves to euthanized. They should also be asked about the instances where there is no medical problem with the baby. 

"You're taking the extreme case," Nancy Pelosi said last week when asked what the difference was between elective late-term abortion and the Gosnell slayings. "You're taking the extreme case," she repeated.

Yes, it is the extreme case, but the bill being considered by the House of Representatives deals directly and almost exclusively with this extreme case. Pelosi could not say what the moral distinction was between the Gosnell killings and standard late-term abortions because, as writers like Margaret Carlson and Kirsten Powers have pointed out, there isn't really a logical distinction between the two.

Prior to the Gosnell case, many Americans could claim ignorance of our country's late-term abortion regime. No longer. Today's vote is a test that will separate those who truly believe what happened in Gosnell's clinic amounted to human rights atrocities from those who are really only upset that Gosnell didn't keep a tidier clinic.

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