Comment
9
Tweet
0
Print
RSS Feeds

Philly abortion murder trial has national impact

Tuesday - 5/7/2013, 4:12pm  ET

FILE - This undated photo provided by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office shows a procedure room at the Women's Medical Society in Philadelphia. Abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who catered to minorities, immigrants and poor women at the Women's Medical Society, was charged Wednesday Jan. 19, 2011, with eight counts of murder in the deaths of a patient and seven babies who were born alive and then killed according to prosecutors. Prosecutors said Gosnell employed untrained, unlicensed workers in a deplorable facility with broken or unsterile equipment. (AP Photo/Philadelphia District Attorney)

DAVID CRARY
Associated Press

For weeks, jurors in Philadelphia heard grim testimony about deaths and squalor at Dr. Kermit Gosnell's inner-city abortion clinic. While they listened, the murder case reverberated far beyond the courtroom, changing -- at least for the moment -- the tone of the national debate on abortion.

Groups supporting legal access to abortion, after major successes in the 2012 national elections, find themselves on the defensive as they distance themselves from Gosnell.

"All of us are appalled by the substandard illegal practices," said Vicki Saporta, who as CEO of the National Abortion Federation represents hundreds of U.S. abortion clinics. "But to make the leap to say that's indicative of the state of abortion care throughout the U.S. is absolutely false."

Anti-abortion activists, in contrast, are energized by the case, citing it in fundraising appeals and renewed efforts to expand state restrictions on abortion.

"It's very seldom we get such an opportunity to look at the realities of what's happening in abortion," said Dr. Donna Harrison, president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Gosnell, 72, is charged with killing five people -- a patient and four viable babies that prosecutors say were born alive. Among scores of other counts, he also is accused of performing abortions after Pennsylvania's 24-week limit.

Jury deliberations began April 30 and are scheduled to resume Monday.

Anti-abortion groups have seized on the case as a chance to reach an audience beyond their regular followers. Those efforts were enhanced midway through the trial when abortion opponents used social media to accuse some national news outlets of a "blackout" of the case, resulting in increased news coverage.

Certainly, there's been national attention. Beth Burkstrand-Reid, a University of Nebraska law professor who teaches courses about abortion and gender issues, says her students have been coming up to her before and after class to talk about the case.

The horrific allegations against Gosnell -- whose clinic was licensed but hadn't been inspected since 1993 -- have prompted the abortion-rights lobby to repudiate him as a "rogue operator" employing practices far outside the norm.

"This was an incredibly horrible situation and when it came to light, he was somehow associated with the abortion community, which he's not," said Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a research group which supports abortion rights. "It's taking a long time for that message to get out. He does not represent abortion care in this country."

Anti-abortion groups are trying to make the case that he does, arguing that lax regulation and callous attitudes have allowed dangerous conditions to persist in many clinics.

They also contend there's little practical difference between what Gosnell is charged with -- killing four babies who were born alive -- and a late-term abortion.

The trial "shows people that abortion is about killing human beings that have arms and legs and in this case, a lot of attention has been focused on necks and spines that can be cut. They're alive and something has to be done to them to cause them to die," said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee.

One anti-abortion group, Live Action, has used the case to publicize the latest in a series of undercover videos it has made at abortion clinics.

"Gosnell Not Alone in Late-term Abortion Brutality," declares a news release about videos which, according to Live Action president Lila Rose, show abortion providers discussing possible outcomes of late-term abortions that she depicts as infanticide.

Another group, Americans United for Life, is using the case to bolster its promotion of state laws requiring abortion clinics to meet the same safety standards as outpatient surgical facilities.

"You are going to see legislators taking a look at this horrific situation in Philadelphia and say, 'We do not want this in our state,'" said spokeswoman Kristi Hamrick.

Anti-abortion activists were already feeling emboldened by the Republican electoral gains of 2010. Since then, GOP-dominated state legislatures have passed more than 160 restrictive abortion measures -- more than in the seven previous years combined, according to a tally by the Guttmacher Institute.

In the 2012 election, abortion-rights supporters countered by accusing the GOP of waging a "war on women," and some anti-abortion Republicans lost high-profile Senate races.

Now the Gosnell case is providing abortion opponents with fresh ammunition as they seek tighter clinic regulations and additional restrictions on late-term abortions. For example, they are citing the case in urging Congress to ban abortions in Washington, D.C., beyond the 20th week of pregnancy, based on the disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain at that age.

   1 2  -  Next page  >>