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Are there more abortion doctors like Kermit Gosnell? And do we want to know?

Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor accused of delivering babies he joked were big enough to walk him to the bus stop, and then “snipping” their spinal cords. (Yong Kim/AP)

“I don’t know why you want to know all this; just do it.” – Clinic worker in the Bronx, answering questions about late-term abortion from a woman who was 23 weeks pregnant.

An antiabortion activist appears to have videotaped a counselor at a Bronx clinic laughingly advising her not to trouble herself with the particulars of the late-term abortion that the woman, who was 23 weeks pregnant, said she wanted.

What if the baby were born alive at home once the process was set in motion? “If it comes out, then it comes out; flush it,’’ a counselor at the Dr. Emily Women’s Health Center answered the undercover activist on the tape. She’d been working at the clinic for nearly 11 years, she said — since she was only 16.

President Obama addressing Planned Parenthood on Friday. (Video)

A message left on the center’s 24-hour line wasn’t returned on Sunday.

No question the activists timed the release of the tape to coincide with the murder trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. On Monday, we’re scheduled to hear the final arguments in that case, in which Gosnell stands accused of causing a woman’s death, and of “snipping” the spinal cords of babies prosecutors say he delivered alive and then killed.

Since a grand jury first drew us a picture of his “house of horrors” clinic two years ago, abortion-rights activists have argued that that’s what happens when there are too few legitimate clinics, and no federal funding for abortions for poor women.

But if the overarching goal is first, last and always protecting women’s health, why didn’t the National Abortion Federation inspector who turned down Gosnell’s membership application report the unsanitary conditions and safety violations she saw there?

If what she observed — a padlock on an emergency exit in a part of the clinic where women were left alone overnight, for example — was so far outside the norm, then why didn’t it inspire a single phone call to the state, according to the grand jury report? Instead, the gruesome Dr. G was only shut down after investigators were tipped off that he was over-prescribing OxyContin.

Other such criminal clinics have only made the news as local stories, while most mainstream abortion coverage details threats to abortion rights rather than to women themselves.

Even when a New York woman died after a third-trimester abortion performed in Maryland in February, the coverage questioned not the care that led to her death, but the breach of privacy she suffered when antiabortion activists publicized the case.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards addressing last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. (Washington Post)

There is certainly no shortage of outraged attention to the “personhood” movement, which would define life from the moment of conception as worthy of protection under the law. I don’t know how such a law might be enforced without the kind of humiliating monitoring China used to uphold its one-child policy, and the proof that it’s opposed even by most Americans who consider themselves pro-life is that it can’t even pass in Mississippi.

But where’s the coverage of extreme views at the other end of the spectrum? Of, for instance, the jaw-dropping testimony of Planned Parenthood official Alisa LaPolt Snow? When asked by a Florida lawmaker what kind of medical care the organization thinks a child who somehow survives a late-term abortion should get, Snow suggested that even then, the child’s fate is a woman’s right to choose.

That’s how our president voted as an Illinois state senator, too, even after his stated concerns about the “born alive” bill were addressed. Though there is a lot of room for disagreement on when life does begin, most of us think viability is a pretty clear, bright line.

Not Planned Parenthood, though, which hasn’t disavowed anything Snow said. And not the Bronx counselor caught on tape, who warns the woman sitting in front of her that no matter what happens, she mustn’t go to the hospital, where if she were to give birth to a live child, that baby might be given medical care.

While in campaign mode, Obama purported to respect diverse views on the abortion issue. But I detected no such sensitivity in his Friday remarks at Planned Parenthood, where he spoke of “those who want to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century.  And they’ve been involved in an orchestrated and historic effort to roll back basic rights when it comes to women’s health.”

Abortion, he means, though that word wasn’t in his talk.

Though I do not support a “personhood” amendment, neither am I okay with the Orwellian dodge that it’s not a baby unless and until we say it’s a baby. And I continue to hope that someday, Americans will look back on the twin moral blind spots of infanticide and capital punishment – yes, even for terrorists – and wonder what we were thinking.

But part of the answer, surely, is that we’ve tried not to do a lot of thinking when doing so would prove uncomfortable. Part of the answer, I believe, is right there in what that Bronx clinic worker said to the undercover activist: “I don’t know why you want to know all this; just do it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this column said the activist was never asked if she was sure she wanted to go through with the abortion, but she was, on a portion of the interview not shown on the tape, according to a full transcript provided by the activist.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor and is spending this semester on a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.



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