The Public Policy

Before and After Kermit Gosnell

The modern abortion debate will never be the same again.

By 6.21.13

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Twenty years from now I’m betting historians will look back and classify the modern abortion debate into two time periods: before Kermit Gosnell and after.

The Philadelphia doctor convicted May 13 of three counts of first degree murder in the deaths of babies born alive and involuntary manslaughter of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar in his Women’s Medical Society clinic showed the country what late-term abortion is all about: butchering innocent children.

Many other doctors across the country kill children who would be alive if found on the other side of the birth canal. And other horrible stories make headlines, like that of 29-year-old Jennifer McKenna-Morbelli who died in February after undergoing an abortion at 33 weeks at a Germantown, Maryland clinic.

But the gruesome details of how Gosnell practiced his trade – stabbing scissors into the back of babies’ necks and cutting their spinal cords, among his methods -- changed everything. It forced the national media kicking and screaming to cover a trial they tried to ignore for weeks and prompted a national discussion about when “fetuses” become children. It also fueled support for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban most abortions after 20 weeks, passed in the House earlier this week.

The scrutiny became intense enough national pro-abortion groups were forced to publicly condemn Gosnell. After the trial verdict in May, for example, NARAL Pro-Choice America wrote, “Justice was served to Kermit Gosnell today and he will pay the price for the atrocities he committed.”

The group’s spin on the significance of the trial, however, shows how important it was to contain the fallout. In classic fashion it argued that it was pro-life legislators who created Gosnell. “We hope that the lessons of the trial do not fade with the verdict,” it wrote. “Anti-choice politicians, and their unrelenting efforts to deny women access to safe and legal abortion care, will only drive more women to back-alley butchers like Kermit Gosnell.”

Never mind that Gosnell’s clinic was legal -- NARAL knows, like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), that changing the narrative about abortion will invalidate its cause. That is why Ms. Pelosi last week tried to fling the abortion question back to the era of Roe v. Wade when the only thing that mattered was the “right to choose.”

Asked by the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack about the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, she falsely claimed, “It would make it a federal law that there would be no abortion in our country.”

She added, “As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this. I don't think it should have anything to do with politics."

I get why she said what she said. In the old debate her argument had clear and simple moral superiority. It was choice or back room alley abortions; choice or women’s oppression. Bringing her faith into the debate is significant, too. By association she wanted to give her argument the tinge of authority without having to explain which ties bind late-term abortion with Catholicism.

But it puts her and all who argue like her in the awkward situation of defending belief over fact, because understanding of human life has grown immensely since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973. Without NARAL and Ms. Pelosi’s approval science turned the abortion question to one about choice and when a baby’s heart begins to beat, when she feels pain and when he can wiggle his toes, blink, and suck his thumb.

Until Gosnell, their tired explanations still held sway. But I think the reality of breathing, kicking babies dismembered and murdered for money on display at the Gosnell trial will only give more credence to unborn children’s legal claims initiated by medical advances.

Besides, selling unfettered abortion to a new generation of Americans who grew up with sonograms and weekly email updates on the latest changes in their growing babies seems like a lost cause. Polls also show a strong majority of Americans do not think abortion should be legal in the second and third trimesters.

Infanticide now described as late-term abortion should no more be a legal right than murder. If Ms. Pelosi and NARAL want to be on the right side of history they will stop conflating all abortion and denying what medicine has made possible. And if it is Kermit Gosnell who ultimately makes them change their story, his life will have served a purpose other than evil.

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About the Author
Marta H. Mossburg writes frequently about national affairs and about politics in Maryland, where she lives.  Write her at marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.