Five Lessons from the Gosnell Abortion-Clinic Controversy

The hot conservative story of late last week, starting with a USA Today op-ed by Kristen Powers, was the failure of the mainstream media to cover the horrifying case of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor accused of committing infanticide, and maiming and, in some cases, killing his patients (most of them poor women) in an unsanitary abortion clinic. Perhaps the story does deserve more coverage than it has received, but the lessons to be drawn from it are different from the conclusions conservatives are making. Here are five points currently being overlooked in the coverage of the controversy.


Feminists Were on It

Whether the mainstream national media has given adequate attention to the Gosnell case is a matter of judgment, although claims that it's been entirely ignored are incorrect. (Consider, for example, Sabrina Tavernise's lengthy New York Times story from 2011.) But it should be remembered who hasn't been ignoring the story: feminist writers. Many prominent feminists, for obvious reasons, reacted with horror to the charges against Gosnell. To the extent that the mainstream media has not been as attentive, there's a clear reason: Gosnell's victims were predominantly poor women of color. As Salon's Irin Carmon puts it, "How often do such places devote their energies to covering the massive health disparities and poor outcomes that are wrought by our current system? How often are the travails of the women whose vulnerabilities Gosnell exploited—the poor, immigrants and otherwise marginalized people—given wall-to-wall, trial-level coverage?" The lack of coverage by broadcast networks is simply part of a larger trend of ignoring the problem of massive inequality in the United States.


Pro-Choice Policies Are Not the Problem

Claims of media bias by conservatives dovetail with the suggestion that the Gosnell clinic is some sort of embarrassment for the pro-choice movement. But this is a non-sequitur. Let's start with this basic fact: Infanticide and medically unnecessary post-viability abortions were already illegal under Pennsylvania law. Pro-choicers do not, of course, oppose either policy. The problem here is not a lack of law on the books, but that the state devotes insufficient law-enforcement resources to protecting the interests of the disadvantaged. It's even more important to remember that Pennsylvania, to put it mildly, does not have liberal abortion laws. The Keystone State—which was the instigator of the 1992 case that substantially watered down the protections of Roe v. Wade—has long been a pioneer in passing extensive, arbitrary regulations of abortion that are among the nation's most onerous. Far from being a demonstration of the failure of pro-choice policies, the Gosnell case shows that opponents of reproductive freedom favor regulatory obstacles that endanger women's health.


Improving Access Prevents Unethical Providers

The belated conservative reaction to the Gosnell case is a classic example of the bait-and-switch at the heart of the increasing proliferation of abortion regulations. Anti-choicers talk a great deal about the relatively tiny number of medically unnecessary post-viability abortions—which Roe v. Wade explicitly allows to be banned and are already illegal—in order to pass regulations that apply at every stage of pregnancy. The most common of these regulations—prohibitions on public funding for abortion, waiting periods, parental-involvement laws, mandatory ultrasounds, and the targeted regulation of abortion providers—are not merely irrelevant, but counterproductive. All of these legal burdens make obtaining a safe first-trimester abortion more difficult. Although the Gosnell case will be used by opponents of reproductive freedom to advocate for more arbitrary regulations, to argue that a single doctor performing already illegal post-viability abortions means that we should make safe pre-viability abortions less accessible is self-refuting nonsense. As Carmon puts it, women kept going to Gosnell's clinic "because they felt they had no alternative." That alternative is clinics where even poor women can obtain safe first-trimester abortions in a timely manner, without having to navigate a blizzard of regulatory impediments with the sole purpose of inhibiting access to abortion.


Beware of Women's Safety Used as a Pretext

Some proposed regulations of abortion clinics, which are allegedly intended to make the procedure safer, superficially appear to have relevance to the Gosnell case. But at their heart, these regulations mimic other arbitrary abortion regulations: Their intent is to prevent all abortions, including those performed by clinics that are perfectly safe. There is no question that Gosnell's ongoing operation represented a massive regulatory failure on the part of the Pennsylvania government. But shutting down the Gosnell clinic hardly required laws specifically targeted to abortion clinics. Generally applicable laws regulating all medical procedures—the ones requiring licensed doctors to maintain ethically operated, sanitary facilities—could have been applied by the state in this case. Laws such as the one recently passed in Virginia, conversely, are designed not to prevent criminal outliers like Gosnell but to create massive burdens on all abortion providers, including the vast majority who are ethical. In states like Mississippi, TRAP laws have made it nearly impossible for abortion clinics to operate—a result that will force more women to turn to unsafe alternatives. In the end, the constant use of women's health as a pretext by people who just oppose legal abortion makes the application of health regulations that really are about protecting women's health more difficult.


Stigmatizing Abortion Hurts Women

Finally, the Gosnell case is an illustration of a deeper problem with abortion politics in the United States. A number of pundits—most notably Slate's William Saletan and The Daily Beast's Megan McArdle—have argued that even though it's best that abortion remain formally legal, pro-choicers should concede that abortion is an icky, immoral procedure that should be discouraged. But the stigmatization of abortion, as it functions in the United States, greatly harms women. In most other liberal democracies, the Gosnell clinic wouldn't be an issue because even poor women could obtain safe abortions in a public hospital. In the United States, even where abortion is legal the constant stigma attached to the procedure—up to and including acts of violence against abortion providers and clinics—contributes to a making safe abortions less accessible. The best way to prevent future Gosnells is to treat pre-viability abortions like the ordinary, safe medical procedures they in fact are, not to engage in sexist moralizing.

The Gosnell case certainly represents a failure by the state of Pennsylvania to protect women. Enacting more regulations that make safe, pre-viability abortions more scarce would be precisely the wrong lesson to take from it, and would mean more Gosnells, not fewer. Making abortion safe, legal, and accessible for all women is more important than ever.

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