With his conviction on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter, America can close at least one chapter on the grisly saga that is Kermit Gosnell’s house of horrors. Gosnell is the former Philadelphia physician who ran an abortion clinic where at least three infants who were born alive were killed, and one female patient died. But the story is far from over, particularly when it comes to Gosnell’s long-term impact on the abortion-rights movement.
Those who describe themselves as “pro-life” and those who call themselves “pro-choice” rarely agree on much when it comes to the topic of abortion. Yet Gosnell appears to be the great unifier. I have heard nothing but condemnation of Gosnell from supporters of abortion rights, such as Planned Parenthood, and opponents including countless antiabortion groups. His case reinforces that as simplistic as the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” may sound, the realities surrounding abortion, and the circumstances that lead women to contemplate them are rarely simplistic at all. For this reason, Gosnell could prove to be a pivotal turning point and wake-up call in the American reproductive rights movement.
Earlier this year Planned Parenthood unveiled a landmark poll that confirmed what every woman who has ever had a conversation with a mother, sister, cousin, niece or best friend who has found herself grappling with an unplanned pregnancy already knew: that reproductive choices are not as black and white as the labels “pro-choice” or “pro-life” pretend. There are a lot of shades of grey.
We should not have needed a poll to confirm this. After all, there are even shades of grey among prominent antiabortion activists. They may personally consider abortion murder, but are willing to bend empathetically if a woman is a victim of incest. But while Planned Parenthood acknowledged that the labels have not evolved sufficiently over the years, one acknowledgment the organization and other abortion-rights groups have failed to sufficiently make is that science has evolved too.
Dr. Edward Bell, the director of neonatology at the Children’s Hospital in Iowa was quoted in a 2005 Parents Magazine article as saying that today the prognosis for a baby born at 25 weeks, long before a standard due date, is “quite good.” The article notes that the same could not have been said just 10 years before. We all know that, for the most part, science and technology progress, not regress, which means the odds for survival outside of the womb are getting better earlier, and will likely continue to do so. Yet there has been little effort by the most vocal voices in the abortion-rights movement to address this evolution. I once asked an abortion-rights activist about this and her response (which I’m paraphrasing) was something like, “science may change but the law is supposed to be certain.”
The Gosnell case proves just how silly this is.
Just as there are antiabortion activists who embrace the grey area that encompasses survivors of rape and incest there are plenty of abortion-rights supporters who embrace the grey area that encompasses late-term abortions, which if we are talking about a perfectly healthy fetus, is in fact a life, even to those who support abortion rights.
According to Gallup, an overwhelming majority of Americans do not support overturning Roe v. Wade, but also do not support late-term abortions. This is not new news. What is news, is that Gosnell has put a public face, or rather faces, to the grim realities of late-term abortion.
While Planned Parenthood applauded the Gosnell verdict, and should be applauded for doing so, the real question becomes how it, and the rest of the reproductive rights movement, moves forward after Gosnell. If the Gosnell case is treated as merely an unfortunate blip, then the mainstream reproductive rights movement will risk becoming a relic of the past, out of touch with modern day feminists who embrace reproductive rights, as well as the grey area of what constitutes a life. But if these groups care about ensuring that reproductive rights continue to exist long after the name Kermit Gosnell has been forgotten, then it is essential that they acknowledge two things.
First, that protecting life is important morally, ethically and politically. Second, defining when life begins is a conversation that must be dictated by science and common sense, not political expediency.
Keli Goff is a special correspondent for The Root whose writing has also appeared in TIME Magazine and Cosmopolitan. Follow her on twitter @Keligoff