Abortion Doc's Arrest Shouldn't Mean More Restrictions

Abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell's recent indictment has sparked a campaign to further restrict late-term abortions. That's the wrong message to take from his crimes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes Michael McMonagle of the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania, who says Gosnell's arrest for the murder of a woman and several already-born infants "adds a sense of urgency and makes the issue tangible." Gosnell is also accused of performing abortions after Pennsylvania's 24-week deadline — McMonagle's group would like to roll that back to 16 weeks. He says he's "puzzled" by pro-choicers outrage at Gosnell: "Once you dehumanize the unborn child, what Gosnell is is just a logical extension of the so-called right to choose. Human rights begin when human life begins."

The idea that all abortion providers are just one step away (if that) from a blood-stained, fetal-feet-filled "house of horrors" is pretty much a fixture of anti-choice rhetoric, and it doesn't really deserve much more ink than we've already given it. Somewhat more worthy of debate — because it's more honest — is William Saletan's question: whether aborting fetuses after viability should be illegal. It's a question on which even some pro-choicers disagree, and it's worthy of consideration. Saletan initially posed it last week, and today he posts a series of important caveats, most pointed out by feminist writers: that Kermit Gosnell "doesn't represent abortion providers or the pro-choice movement," that most abortions are not late-term, and that many late-term abortions are necessary because the fetus has severe abnormalities. It's also worth reiterating that there's a distinction between the late-term abortions Gosnell reportedly performed and the instances wherein he allegedly fully delivered living infants and then killed them with scissors — no pro-choicers are advocating that the latter should be legal.

But some say restrictions on abortions after viability should be lifted, and there are valid arguments for this. Saletan quotes Steph Herold and Susan Yanow, who write,

Don't we believe that women are moral decision makers, and carefully consider their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy? Don't we reject the anti-choice rhetoric that women make the decision to have an abortion callously? The pro-choice movement takes a step backward when we judge that a woman has taken too long to make what may be a life-changing decision. Shouldn't we want women to take the time they need to make the best decision, regardless of where they are in the pregnancy?

It's also not clear what a viability standard would look like. Fetal viability isn't a clear line — and while there's a point at which most infants delivered prematurely survive (Saletan notes that those delivered at 29 weeks have a 97% survival rate), there's no magic date at which every fetus is viable. And no one seems to be suggesting that women who want to abort viable fetuses should be induced and allowed to deliver prematurely — rather, the thinking is that they should continue their pregnancies to term, though they would prefer not to be pregnant. This thinking still requires women to sacrifice bodily autonomy, a sacrifice that is never trivial. So those who ask it had better be quite sure that there's a meaningful moral distinction between a fetus that's passed a certain point in its development and a fetus that hasn't — or, more accurately, that there's a meaningful moral distinction that deserves to be imposed from the outside. As much as I can appreciate the differences between a fetus that might be able to survive outside the womb and one that definitely wouldn't, I'm still not prepared to say that my appreciation of those differences is more important than a woman's individual evaluation of her situation. And so, in answer to Saletan's question, I'd say that I'm in favor of a woman's right to choose, whether it's at 10 weeks, 24, or beyond. And while Kermit Gosnell's arrest should certainly inspire us to more closely enforce safety regulations at clinics (something Pennsylvania health officials spectacularly dropped the ball on), it shouldn't be a reason to roll back women's rights.

The Baby Butcher, Revisited [Slate]
Foes Of Abortion See Opportunity To Make Rules Stricter [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Kermit Gosnell Abortion Clinic Was Not Inspected For 17 Years [Huffington Post]