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A Sharper Abortion Debate After Gosnell Verdict

Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Philadelphia courthouse after the guilty verdicts Monday.
Matt Rourke
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Philadelphia courthouse after the guilty verdicts Monday.

The murder conviction in Philadelphia of abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell in the deaths of three babies and one of his female patients is likely to further inflame the already heated abortion debate.

Both sides of the abortion divide have been gearing up for what comes next for some time now.

The irony of this case is that those on both sides of the debate were hoping for a conviction. That's because what Gosnell means to the abortion debate really comes down to this: Was he an exception? Or are there more abortion providers like him who just haven't been discovered yet?

Abortion rights backers insist he's an outlier.

"The fact is that what he did was illegal — unethical, unscrupulous, illegal," says Jodi Jacobson. "And it bears no comparison to safe abortion care or even late abortion care, because he performed abortions post-viability on women without indications for such, so they were illegal."

Jacobson, who runs RH Reality Check, an online daily news service about reproductive rights and sexual politics, says most states already have laws that bar abortions late in pregnancy — except when there are medical reasons.

"If you have a late abortion situation in the third trimester, you are facing either a threat to the life or the health of the mother, or a fetus with anomalies incompatible with life," she says.

Abortion opponents, however, say Gosnell is anything but an exception.

"The tentacles of this type of approach to abortion are all over the country," says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. "He is not an outlier. You just have to do a Google search and you'll find in the last several months many other examples" of rogue abortion providers, she said.

But whether or not there are more doctors like Gosnell, anti-abortion forces say they'll try to harness the public outrage created by this trial to further their cause.

Republicans on the House side of Capitol Hill have already launched a series of efforts. Leaders of the Energy and Commerce Committee are asking state public health officials to provide "details on state licensing of abortion clinics and providers, information on revoked licenses, state inspections of clinics" and other details about regulation of abortion providers. The deadline for responses is May 22.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has asked every state attorney general "if state and local governments are being stymied in their efforts to protect the civil rights of newborns and their mothers by legal or financial obstacles that are within the federal government's power to address."

Dannenfelser says she hopes the case will help efforts to pass legislation to ban abortions after a certain point in pregnancy.

"The question would be, is there a point where the civil rights of the unborn child comes into play? And there is a solid majority that says that late in pregnancy, that point exists," she says. "Anywhere from 18 to 20 weeks, there is a good 60, 70, 80 percent support for that type of measure."

Both 18 and 20 weeks, however, are well before fetal viability, and thus would challenge the current Supreme Court holding for when abortion should be generally legal.

Abortion rights groups, meanwhile, are using the Gosnell case, too. They're making the case that as abortion becomes more and more restricted, women will have fewer and fewer options, and will end up turning to sketchier providers like Gosnell.

"He was acting wholly outside the law, and the fact that that is the case really suggests the reason why we need to make sure that we have good providers, that abortion has to be safe and legal and accessible," says Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

One thing is clear coming out of the Gosnell case. It is likely to once again shift the emphasis of the abortion debate. Until recently, it's been on birth control, where abortion-rights groups enjoy broader public support. Now it's likely to swing back to later abortions, where abortion opponents have the public-opinion edge.

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