Why Are We Punishing Women for Kermit Gosnell's Crimes?

Why Are We Punishing Women for Kermit Gosnell's Crimes?

In the wake of Kermit Gosnell's conviction for murder amid gruesome conditions in his abortion clinic, Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures across the country are pushing for new laws to restrict later-term abortions. On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry convened another special legislative session, which immediately went on recess again, to pass a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks that was blocked last week by Wendy Davis's 11-hour filibuster. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich signed a state budget that will force women seeking an abortion to see or listen to the fetal heartbeat; the doctor can face criminal prosecution for not follow this rule. That follows the House of Representatives, which passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in June. That bill, The New York Times reported, plus others in the states, were the result of the Gosnell case, which "has reinvigorated the anti-abortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said." What these bills would not do is prevent another Gosnell.

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What's happening, The New York Times' Ross Douthat writes, is that "abortion opponents have basically tried to do what gun control advocates did after Newtown, and use a horror story to make the case for policies that have clear majority support but also face passionate opposition." But  opponents of these new laws can make the same case the NRA did after Newtown: Why don't we enforce the laws already on the books? And why don't the new laws actually address the crimes Gosnell committed?

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Gosnell performed abortions after Pennsylvania state law bans them — 24 weeks. Staffers were trained to take ultrasounds so that the fetuses looked younger. And it appears Gosnell invented the procedure he used for killing the fetuses. He did so in disgusting conditions. Feral cats were allowed to walk around and poop on the floor. Women were given blood-stained blankets. Bizarrely, fetal feet were stored in plastic jugs. Not even the grossest restaurants are allowed to stay open in conditions like that. But Gosnell found it highly lucrative. The clinic took in between $10,000 and $15,000 a day.

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Douthat hints that pro-abortion bias in the press might explain why Gosnell and abortion laws aren't being linked more explicitly. He says, "it seems like a genuinely fair-minded, ideologically disinterested press would at least tend to mention the link between the Gosnell case and the Texas bill as often as it mentions Wendy Davis’s footwear." But does linking Gosnell to these laws really strengthen the case?

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As many people have pointed out, what the Gosnell case is really about is not abortion, but poverty. No wealthy women would have been subjected to such treatment or horrific conditions. Gosnell was able to take advantage of the fact that few poor women would report his clinic, and those who did were ignored. Sherry Thomas told The New York Times she couldn't afford her fourth child, but by the time she saved up enough money for an abortion, she was in her fifth month of pregnancy. She woke up covered in her own blood while being put in an ambulance. Her uterus had been punctured. So Gosnell offered her a discount, the Times reports:

“When I woke up I thought, ‘I might die today,’ ” Ms. Thomas said. Dr. Gosnell offered her $500, she said, possibly in an effort to avert a lawsuit. She had paid $800 for the abortion.

The grand jury report found that despite many warning signs — Gosnell's clinic was open past midnight, women were seen stumbling out in a daze — Pennsylvania regulators did nothing. Proseutors say the case shows "complete regulatory collapse." In fact, even though Gosnell had been sued for malpractice 15 times, what led his clinic to be raided was too many Oxycontin prescriptions.  

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The new anti-abortion bills make it harder for women to get abortions. Texas's bill — the new HB2 and SB9 are mirror images of the much debated SB5 — calls for "banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, requiring that the procedure be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, and mandating that doctors who perform abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles," the Houston Chronicle reports. These architectural changes are expensive, and some clinics say they can't afford them, meaning there might be fewer abortion clinics. Likewise, in Ohio, the new budget bans publicly-funded hospitals from entering emergency care transfer agreements with abortion clinics, meaning some clinics might close.

These measures don't address Gosnell's crimes. They do not strengthen the penalties for doctors who deliver substandard care, and they certainly don't increase the amount those doctors can be sued for malpractice. They do not create tougher penalties for inspectors who miss grotesque violations of regulations. Ohio doctors can now be criminally prosecuted for failing to show an ultrasound to a woman who wants an abortion. That means the new law punishes women by trying to make them feel guilty.