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Waiting for the Gosnell Verdict

The wait for the verdict in the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell went on today as a jury continued to weigh the multitude of charges that the Philadelphia abortionist faces for butchering women and their babies. The case has gotten more attention in the mainstream media in recent weeks after conservative columnists lambasted it for ignoring a gruesome story that remains an embarrassment to the pro-choice side of the abortion debate. But it’s still unclear whether the country has even started to fully assimilate what these crimes mean about the state of health care for poor women in this country. Nor are many of us asking the big question that hangs over the Gosnell proceedings: how much of an aberration are the instances of infanticide that the testimony against the defendants revealed?

But there is one thing we know for sure. If Gosnell’s attorneys manage to convince a jury not to convict him, you can forget about any expectations that this case will lead to more scrutiny of clinics where late-term abortions are being conducted.

Abortion rights defenders are right to say that the charge that Gosnell’s crimes, which include the murder of infants born alive after botched abortions, should not be imputed to anyone else in what is a large sector of the health care industry. But the problem in Philadelphia is that due to a politically-motivated decision by a pro-choice Republican governor a decade ago, inspections of such clinics were shelved lest they be interpreted as an attempt to make abortions less available. But if a jury is persuaded that the Gosnell prosecution is about race or an attempt to roll back Roe v. Wade, the impulse in the media as well as among a political class that largely wishes to avoid entanglement in this issue will be to forget about it, allowing any other Gosnells out there to go on killing babies and mistreating their patients with impunity.

Even if, as even most objective observers insist, what happened at one clinic in West Philadelphia is unimaginable at Planned Parenthood clinics, this trial ought to cause Americans to begin thinking about whether a politically-motivated lack of concern has created an opening for other Gosnells. One of the most powerful arguments for legalized abortion was always the certainty that whether or not they were allowed under the law, such procedures would continue to be performed. But what we have learned from the Gosnell case is that the horrors of back-alley abortions didn’t end when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe.

Even more troubling is the talk we’ve heard recently from Planned Parenthood in which it was made clear that a) some in the group think giving medical care to infants born alive after abortions was optional and b) the horror stories emanating from the Gosnell office were not considered sufficiently shocking by local Planned Parenthood officials to report them to the authorities. If such reactions are possible, then it is far from unreasonable to conclude that a culture of indifference to human life, even when it has emerged from womb, may be operating on the margins of our health care system.

Let us pray that that whatever it is that happens to Kermit Gosnell, the gut-wrenching facts of this case are sufficiently publicized to cause enough Americans to do some soul-searching about what this trial says about the state of ethics and respect for human dignity in our country today.


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