As abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell begins to draw national attention for how he ran his Philadelphia clinic, it raises a question: Can the allegedly egregious acts of one provider shift the broader abortion debate?
It's too early to tell how the attention around Gosnell, who is now standing trial for the deaths of one woman and seven infants, will affect elected officials as they consider an array of new restrictions on abortion providers. But the shocking nature of Gosnell’s alleged crimes has provided abortion opponents with new ammunition as they seek to impose new regulations on abortion clinics across the country.
The 72-year old Gosnell ran a clinic that, according to eight of his co-workers who have already pleaded guilty, performed illegal, late-term abortions under unsanitary and dangerous conditions. The 2011 grand jury report details dirty and bloody operating tables and women, some of them in their teens, who sustained serious injuries after Gosnell performed botched procedures. Karnamaya Mongar, a Nepalese immigrant, died in 2009 after being given an overdose of anesthesia and pain medication during an operation at Gosnell's clinic.
Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for Americans United for Life, noted that Pennsylvania stopped doing clinic inspections for years after its former governor, Tom Ridge (R), argued those inspections served as a deterrent to providing women access to abortion services.
Now, Hamrick added, both sides should be able to embrace the idea of new regulations. “You would think this would be an area of common ground,” Hamrick said. “There’s no constitutional right to be butchered.”
Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said her group hopes Gosnell is “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” She added: “What he was doing in no way represents what quality abortion care looks like. No woman should ever have to endure this, and it’s shocking beyond belief that the state continued to ignore repeated complaints about this guy.”
But she and other abortion rights advocates note that every abortion clinic in the country already must comply with a large number of federal health and safety regulations, including those under the Federal Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act. And at times women’s health groups have worked with state regulators to strengthen oversight of abortion clinics, such as those in Maryland, where the state adopted new rules last year that allow state health officials to inspect a facility and fine or shut down clinics that don't comply.
The allegedly atrocious conditions at Gosnell’s clinic, they said, do not justify the kind of new clinic rules states have adopted recently. Both Alabama and Mississippi now require abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital, which abortion advocates say could jeopardize the clinics' ability to stay in business, while Virginia just finalized rules Friday requiring abortion clinics to comply with hospital-style building codes in order to keep operating.
Crane noted her group has given Pennsylvania an “F” for access to reproductive health care. “ When you shut down women’s access and you take away their access to legal care, then they go more dangerous avenues,” she said. “If restrictions meant safer care, there’s no way [Gosnell] would have been able to practice.”
Would the kind of clinic rules that states are now considering have made a difference in Gosnell's case? It is unclear how Virginia's law would have done anything, given that it pertains to the physical operation of a clinic. The laws in states such as Alabama or Arkansas pertain in part to the type of medicine being practiced by a provider, though they impose a higher standard on abortion clinic than other out-patient facilities.
At this point 29 states regulate abortion clinics in some way, according to Americans United for Life. This year 17 states are considering measures to regulate both the facilities and individuals performing abortions, though these proposal vary widely.
What Gosnell was doing violated current law--rather than the stricter ones states are now contemplating--and the problem is state officials didn't bother to inspect his facility. Even Hamrick noted that new restrictions are meaningless without rigorous enforcement.
"As the Kermit Gosnell case aptly demonstrates, the mere existence of protective laws is not enough," she wrote in an e-mail later. "State officials must also consistently enforce these laws."
Nonethless, the descriptions of Gosnell delivering babies in the third trimester of pregnancy and then killing them after they survived has injected an explosive element into an already-emotional public policy debate.
Members of Congress such as Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), a longtime abortion opponent, took to the floor Thursday night to deliver a series of special-order speeches about how Americans would change their perspective on the procedure if only Gosnell’s case received sufficient publicity.
"Again I ask, 'When will the media blackout stop?' Will America ever be told about the brutality of abortion and the violence that is commonplace inside the abortion industry?” Smith asked. “Or will the media continue to censor this trial of the century, because it exposes an all too inconvenient truth that not only are unborn children destroyed in these killing centers, but that even babies who survive the abortion can’t escape the deadly hand of the child predator."
And James Bopp Jr., who represents anti-abortion groups in federal court, said the push to impose new regulations on clinics is likely to withstand legal challenges given the current makeup of the Supreme Court. “There’s a growing recognition that states can do this,” he said.
Right now,. the White House is staying out of the debate over Kermit Gosnell. On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment when asked about the issue.
"The president does not and cannot take a position on an ongoing trial," Carney said, even though President Obama weighed in on other ongoing trials such as when Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed last year by George Zimmerman.