The prevailing narrative about our contemporary political situation for liberals is that it is conservatives and Republicans who oppose compromise on every front. While that might be a fair characterization of the stand many House Republicans have taken on immigration reform, as a rule of thumb, that is a hypocritical and false position when analyzing the debate about taxes, entitlements, health care and many other issues since Democrats are no less ideological than the GOP on these questions. But that doesn’t stop liberal publications from continuing to put forward this line, especially with regard to social issues such as abortion. Today, the New York Times attempts to point out the folly of Texas conservatives who have pushed for a new law imposing limits (no abortions after 20 weeks with exceptions for the mother’s health) and standards on the practice of abortion by comparing it to a new set of regulations that have promulgated in Maryland. But although the conceit of the piece is ostensibly about the sensible conduct of Maryland officials in contrast to the alleged extremism of the Texas GOP, it isn’t entirely supported by much of the content of the article.
Though the editors of the Times may have intended this feature to be another salvo on behalf of the pro-choice position in the culture war over abortion, the tale it tells underlines the concerns about illegal and dangerous practices that is driving the debate in Texas and elsewhere. By pointing out that the Maryland rules were impelled by abuses by abortionists and by also letting slip that one of the key elements of the Texas bill—compelling abortion clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgery centers—was already in place in Pennsylvania without making it impossible for women to obtain first trimester abortions, the Times undermines the claim that what was filibustered in Austin to the cheers of liberals around the nation was either extreme or unreasonable. Nor do the claims that abortion is universally safe sound convincing after the account of yet another Gosnell-like atrocity.
The centerpiece of the Times account is the story of Dr. Steven C. Brigham, a New Jersey-based practitioner who was charged with fetal deaths as the result of botched abortions that took place at his Elkton, Maryland clinic. The Elkton office, which was no more than a bare office in a mall, was where he completed late-term abortions that were begun in New Jersey where he had no legal right to conduct such procedures. Though he had a long record of abuses (he was banned from practicing medicine in Pennsylvania—the state that failed for decades to uncover the horrors committed at Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic) and had already transferred corporate ownership of his clinics to his mother, Brigham had a thriving business doing questionable and clearly unsafe late term procedures. He was found out when an 18-year-old patient with a 21-week-old fetus had her uterus and bowels pierced during an abortion carried out by Brigham and an inexperienced associate. Only after his victim was taken to Johns Hopkins University to save her life and one of the doctors there reported what had happened was Brigham called to account. After an investigation, he was charged with murdering numerous fetuses that were 24 or more weeks old. But the charges were dropped since prosecutors had no confidence that they could convict him. He lost his license to practice medicine but otherwise got off scot-free.
The article is at pains to give abortion advocates space to claim that it is generally safe. But after reading the Gosnell story and this one, it’s not clear to me why any objective observer would think that most abuses or problems are being accurately reported. It is likely that most first-term abortions are generally safely conducted in most places in this country. But the dangerous abortions are the ones being done on late-term fetuses that are either already illegal or being done in clinics that are not authorized to carry out the practice. To assume, as one doctor quoted in the piece asserts, “having an abortion is safer than an injection of penicillin,” is a leap of faith that isn’t borne out by the accounts of horrors provided in this same article.
The new Maryland regulations are less stringent in some respects than the ones proposed in Texas. They focus on whether clinics can respond effectively to emergencies, and do not require them to adhere to all the minute requirements imposed on hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers in most states. Nor do they require all doctors practicing in them to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. But they do impose standards on abortion providers that butchers like Gosnell and Brigham could not satisfy.
The implication is that Texas should pass laws that are equally lenient. That is debatable, but it is a reasonable position. However, liberal arguments about the Texas law haven’t been about how it can be changed in order to be more workable but instead have operated under the premise that any new regulations aimed at protecting women’s health in these clinics are, by definition, an attack on the right to abortion.
Moreover, as even the Times points out, the more restrictive path offered by Texas Republicans isn’t, as the left has tried to argue, synonymous with banning abortion. The article rightly notes that in 2011, Pennsylvania adopted one of the key elements of the Texas bill, requiring abortion clinics to adhere to the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers. That has forced some of their owners to spend money to make their facilities safer, but it has not shut them down. The claims that the changes will invariably bankrupt abortionists are belied by the generally profitable nature of their trade.
But no matter how much they claim that Gosnell and Brigham are exceptions, we know that the abortion industry—like any other big business or trade association—has a vested interest in underreporting problems and cooking statistics that might otherwise hurt public confidence in them. Though abortion rights advocates claim the alternative to preserving the laws as they now stand are back-alley coat hanger abortions, it’s becoming obvious that there are licensed doctors who are currently spilling blood in this manner and claiming they are following the law.
Like Gosnell, what Brigham was doing was slaughtering otherwise healthy babies that were clearly viable if taken out of the womb. You don’t have to oppose all abortions to know that late term procedures under these circumstances are morally repugnant. What conservatives in Texas are trying to do is to make it harder for such atrocities to happen and to make legal abortions safer. The Times may have thought it was illustrating how wrong the Texans have been. But the more we learn about this troubled industry, the weaker the arguments of their defenders sound.