Why Gosnell Thrived: Pro-Choice Politics

Salon’s Irin Carmon has written a follow up piece on the Gosnell trial in which she argues that the media is playing into the hands of those who want to ban all abortions. Reading her argument it becomes clear why many on the left don’t like this story: It shifts the debate to more difficult ground.

Carmon says the whole push to cover Gosnell more extensively is about making “people uncomfortable by focusing on rare and extreme cases and pretending they’re the norm.” I suppose there is some truth to this statistically, though Carmon writes as if her own side of the debate would never stoop to such tactics. In fact, pro-choice advocates routinely talk about rape and incest despite the fact that they represent a tiny fraction of the number of abortions that take place each year. I suspect only people who already agree with her will find this argument compelling.

Eventually Carmon moves on to how, in her view, the Gosnell case ought to be covered. It isn’t about abortion at all, rather it’s about institutional failure:

By all means, let’s talk
about Kermit Gosnell — who is accused of acts that are already illegal —
but in a fact-based fashion. As Philadelphia Weekly reporter Tara
Murtha put it, this
was about a “multi-level, panoramic, institutional negligence, a
culture of passing the buck and flagrant disregard for patient’s
welfare, [which] prevented any meaningful investigation.” This is not
about how Gosnell performed “late term abortions” (a highly imprecise
term) as much as it is about the fact that the women who went to him
felt they had nowhere else to go, an issue I have yet to see all the
right-wing grandstanders fully address.

This is, to put it mildly, an intentionally misleading claim. Yes, the grand jury report did devote significant space to institutional negligence which prevented Gosnell from being stopped years or decades sooner. However the report (and even the source Carmon linked above) clearly identified the root cause of that negligence:

[Department of Health employee Janice] Staloski blamed the decision to abandon supposedly annual inspections of abortion clinics on DOH lawyers, who, she said, changed their legal opinions and advice to suit the policy preferences of different governors. Under Governor Robert Casey, she said, the department inspected abortion facilities annually. Yet, when Governor Tom Ridge came in, the attorneys interpreted the same regulations that had permitted annual inspections for years to no longer authorize those inspections. Then, only complaint driven inspections supposedly were authorized. Staloski said that DOH’s policy during Governor Ridge’s administration was motivated by a desire not to be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions.

When questioned, lawyers for the PA Dept. of Health were unable to offer a legal or common sense justification for the sudden change in policy (i.e. anything other than politics):

It was clear to us after hearing these witnesses testify that the decisions not to inspect abortion clinics or to license them as ASFs were not based on any serious interpretation of statutes or legal research. These lawyers were simply twisting and reinterpreting the law to explain policy decisions that changed with administrations, even though the laws did not.

In fact, regulation of clinics in PA apparently came down to a looking at a single sheet of paper:

If one were to accept DOH’s interpretation of its duties with respect to overseeing the quality of care in abortion facilities, those duties would be limited to granting or denying approval based on a single piece of paper – the “Abortion Facility Registration Form,” which contains the name and mailing address of a facility and a couple of check marks. 

Despite all this, which Carmon completely fails to mention, she leaps to
the claim that “banning abortion outright won’t eliminate the Gosnells
of the world.” Fair enough. Isn’t there something short of a complete ban on abortions which might help? There is an entire section at the end of the grand jury report which proposes needed changes to the law. Here’s just one bit of one of those proposals:

The inspection of abortion facilities is too important a responsibility to be left to the discretion of the Department of Health, subject to the whim of bureaucrats and lawyers who have abdicated their duty to uphold the law. As ASFs, abortion providers would be subject to mandatory annual inspections. If a facility failed to meet the standards required for all ambulatory surgical facilities, it would lose its license.

Gosnell thrived not because of generic bureaucratic bumbling or strident pro-life activism, but because pro-choice political arguments trumped both the law and common sense.

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