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Anti-abortion activists are harnessing the outrage generated over the trial of a Philadelphia abortion doctor to pressure lawmakers to pass more restrictive abortion laws.
The activists say the trial of 72-year-old Kermit Gosnell, which concludes Monday as attorneys on both sides make their closing arguments, shows that late-term abortions are inhumane and unsafe and should be banned.
Gosnell is charged with murder in the deaths of four babies who were born alive after abortion procedures (he is alleged to have cut their spinal cords) and in the death of a woman who died of a drug overdose he allegedly administered.
Gosnell faces other charges, including violating Pennsylvania's law against performing abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy; violating a state law requiring a 24-hour waiting period for patients before obtaining an abortion; and of endangering child welfare by employing a 15-year-old in the clinic, which investigators labeled a "house of horrors."
Abortion foes say Gosnell's crimes are representative of larger abuses in late-term abortion clinics, while abortion rights advocates say he is a criminal outlier who would not have been stopped by more regulations.
One player in the anti-abortion movement, the Susan B. Anthony List, is lobbying for a bill to ban all abortions performed in Washington, D.C., after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The group has generated thousands of letters to lawmakers in support of the "D.C. Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," which was introduced by Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks. The group is also hoping to convince lawmakers to introduce a national version of the bill.
"What is the difference between killing a baby minutes before delivery compared to moments after? Only the barest of legal nuances," SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement tying the proposed D.C. law to Gosnell's alleged crimes. “It is an outrage that in the shadow of the Capitol, children can legally have their lives ended through methods equally brutal to those employed by Gosnell."
The proposed 20-week ban is part of a wave of anti-abortion legislation that is attempting to directly challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which said the government cannot ban abortions that take place before a fetus can survive outside the womb. (The point of viability is considered to be at about 24 weeks, though that point is debated.)
This year, 10 states have passed or are poised to pass legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health issues. Arkansas and North Dakota went even further, recently banning abortions that occur when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
On Friday, President Barack Obama criticized some of those laws in a speech to Planned Parenthood.
“A woman may not even know that she’s pregnant at six weeks,” he said of the North Dakota law.
Those who support abortion rights note that Gosnell was allegedly in violation of dozens of existing laws.
"The important thing to remember is that Kermit Gosnell was running a criminal enterprise, not a health care facility," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood, the leading reproductive health care provider and a proponent of abortion rights. (Planned Parenthood does not generally perform late-term abortions.)
"He was violating dozens and dozens of laws and regulations that were already on the books. New regulations would not have stopped him," Ferrero said.
Federal law requires health care providers to try to save the lives of babies born alive during abortion procedures. Abortions after 21 weeks make up less than 1 percent of all abortions performed in the U.S. each year; the vast majority of abortions take place during the first trimester.
Others in the anti-abortion movement think the Gosnell case may help their cause to regulate clinics more strictly, as well as win over more supporters in the general public to their cause.
James Bopp Jr., the general counsel for National Right to Life, told Yahoo News that the case gives fuel to the argument that abortion clinics should be more strictly regulated. "When the realities of abortion are exposed to the public, it tends to be a rather gruesome business and people do react to that," Bopp said.
The Gosnell case has already prompted Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass a law that requires clinics to be regulated in the same way that outpatient surgery centers are. That means doors, hallways and elevators in the clinic must fit a stretcher, for example, in case a patient needs to be rushed to a hospital. Texas passed similar legislation.
Ferrero said such regulations tie up legitimate clinics in red tape, and would not have stopped someone like Gosnell—who is accused of flouting a number of federal, state and local laws—from criminal practices. The larger campaign to restrict abortion predates the furor over Gosnell, Ferrero said.
"Extreme activists and politicians will certainly try to use this to try to advance their agenda of making abortion inaccessible and unavailable for women, but that is clearly part of a larger, long term political agenda and political campaign among these folks," Ferrero said.
Meanwhile, the anti-abortion group Live Action, led by activist Lila Rose, released undercover videos Monday showing employees at two late-term abortion clinics explaining what would happen if a baby were born alive during an abortion to women they believed were patients.
One unidentified staff member at a Bronx clinic said babies born alive would be placed in a "solution" that would kill them. (The clinic's manager told the Washington Post a baby had never been born alive during an abortion there and that the staff member was uninformed.) A doctor in Washington, D.C., is seen on the tape saying he would be legally obligated to help a baby born alive, but that it would probably die.
In an interview, Rose said she was not interested so much in convincing politicians to ban late term abortions, but rather to change "hearts and minds."
"I think the most important thing is making sure that every person and particularly women in America know exactly what these procedures are and what they do," she said.