Which brings us to the facet with a flashpoint so bright it threatens to blind us from all the other lessons: the politics of abortion.
Indeed, immediately on release of the grand jury report—before it was even humanly possible to have read it in its entirety—competing interpretations of the case began to emerge. For the most part, views split over political fault lines.
The legislative legacy of this case can go one of two ways: it can expedite legislation either restricting or promoting access to abortion.
“The timing could not be worse,” says Susan Schewel, executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund, a local nonprofit that grants financial assistance to poor women seeking abortions. “It’s a horrible situation anyway, but with the results of the mid-term elections and all these legislators around the country and especially in Pennsylvania now starting their work, [the Gosnell case] provides them with fodder if they choose to interpret it toward their ends.”
“What we feared as soon as we heard about the horrifying details of what went on in Gosnell’s clinic, we were concerned right away that those opposed to abortion would take this really isolated case and use it as an opportunity to make a case that this is what all abortion providers are like and how ‘unsafe’ it is,” echoes Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania. “We’ve heard that bills are going to be introduced specifically to further restrict as a result of Gosnell.”
They are correct.
“In the wake of Gosnell situation, we’re talking with some allies and legislators about the Abortion Patients’ Enhanced Safety Act,” Daniel McConchie, vice president of government affairs for Americans United for Life.
AUL states that one of the promises of legalized abortion was that “unskilled and incompetent ‘butchers’ would no longer perform abortions.”
The paper states, “Has more than 30 years of legalized abortion eliminated these problems? Sadly, it has not. Instead, abortion clinics across the country have become the true ‘back alleys’ of abortion mythology.”
The article states, “There is abundant evidence to support the contention that abortion clinics are the true “back alleys” that abortion advocates warned us about.”
The Gosnell case was a Hail Mary pass for pro-life advocates. Gosnell’s name is already tethered to the policy paper explaining the proposed legislation on AUL’s website. Indeed, the grand jury report explicitly recommends this policy.
The policy paper states that APESA’s goal is to raise the standard of basic abortion clinic regulation standards and requires that the center function as ambulatory surgical centers.
But critics charge that legislation like APESA is designed to restrict access to abortion by unnecessarily driving up costs, as a sort of covert arm of anti-abortion advocates’ overall defunding strategy—which critics charge is partly what drives women to resort to places like Women’s Medical Society.
“There were already regulations against Gosnell, it’s not like he was operating within the limits,” argues Tracy Weitz, assistant professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
“You don’t need more regulations for people operating outside the bounds. It’s a horrendous situation and we are all taking different lessons from the story, but the lesson none of us should take is more regulation, because he was already outside the regulations.”
“We have almost 40 years of data to suggest abortion is a remarkably safe clinical procedure,” she says. “[APESA] is really designed to restrict access.”
Weitz says that in order to reach the status of ambulatory surgical center, facilities providing abortions need expensive upgrades such as construction, additional staff to maintain higher nurse-to-patient ratios, and a host of medications that clinics don’t really need if they’re not performing any medical procedures other than abortions.
Weitz co-wrote a study that analyzed the effect of similar legislation in other states. “Ambulatory surgical center requirements significantly increase abortion costs and reduce the availability of abortion services despite the lack of any evidence that using those facilities positively affects health outcomes,” states the 2009 report.
“For pregnant women, the corresponding effect … has been to hinder (and possibly preclude) timely access to safe and legal abortion services,” states the report, which also notes that ASC regulations go “far beyond” guidelines for abortion issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and National Abortion Federation.
“When you restrict abortions you certainly have some women who can not obtain the abortion, but most common is that the abortions are delayed,” Weitz says. “So you take what is a relatively uncomplicated early abortion and make it a later abortion … We force this these women into these later circumstances and then blame them. Most of the data speaks to what is the most common outcome of these restrictions, which is delays.”
Journalist Steve Lopez once wrote that Philadelphia is a city without pretense in a state without shame—and that was long before Harrisburg legislators stooped low enough to exploit murdered babies to push a bill into law that would result in what critics call a “back-door ban” on abortion in Pennsylvania.
Nine months after a grand jury concluded that the number of babies and women who died in Kermit Gosnell's women's health services clinic is “literally incalculable,” a pair of guerilla artists sent out invitations to a renegade art installation titled Regard, to be showcased by lights tonight at the former site.
Under the leadership of 44-year-old Troy Newman, Operation Rescue has become known for zeroing in on defined areas and then pressuring individual clinics and practitioners until operating becomes unreasonable or impossible.
A timeline of events in the case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell.
Last year, in the wake of the arrest of Kermit Gosnell, Operation Rescue came to town. They met in the basement of St. Agnes Church in West Chester. As PW reported in March, the militant anti-abortion organization was there recruiting volunteers to gather doctors’ names and schedules by pretending to be mothers of daughters who were seeking abortions.
PW's Summer Guide 2015