Kermit Gosnell and the Politics of Abortion

Pro-life protest in Washington, D.C., in January 2012 (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
Pro-life protest in Washington, D.C., in January 2012 (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat looks at some of the ethical, philosophical and political issues exposed by the trial of abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is on trial for murder in Philadelphia.

In a society more comprehensively pro-abortion than our own, there would presumably be more doctors willing to perform late-term abortions and certainly more government funding for abortion generally, both of which would reduce the "market share," if you will, available for a monster like Gosnell to exploit. His practice allegedly operated in a gray area created by the combination of 1) Pennsylvania's restrictions on post-viability abortions and 2) pro-choice Pennsylvania administrations that didn't want to enforce those restrictions. But obviously if the state had no restrictions whatsoever and spent public money subsidizing abortion, his abattoir would have had more clean, well-lit, sanitary competitors. Thus Matt Yglesias's conclusion that from a rigorously pro-choice, pro-Roe v. Wade perspective the lesson of the Gosnell horror show is not that the regulations he flouted should have been better enforced; rather, it's that Pennsylvania needed an "above-board competitive marketplace with multiple legal providers of late-term abortion facilities," and the restrictions on late-term abortion unfortunately prevented that marketplace from emerging.

The only things missing from this clean, airtight, entirely consistent argument are, well, all the dead babies in the Gosnell clinic — or the dead "precipitated fetuses," to employ the language Gosnell and his associates used to euphemize their practice of delivering and then "snipping" rather than aborting in utero. Their absence is not necessarily a problem if you're willing to argue that those babies were non-persons before delivery and became persons immediately after (in which case Gosnell is guilty of infanticide but a more competent late-term abortion facility wouldn't be), or if you're willing to argue, with Peter Singer and some others, that personhood is something that emerges gradually at some indeterminate time after birth (in which case Gosnell's "snipping" wasn't murder at all). The former, I think, is the more common form of pro-choice absolutism, and the latter belongs to the more philosophically-inclined fringe (although the debate over "born-alive" bills has moved the official consensus fringeward). But if you're already committed to absolute support for abortion rights, either argument will suffice to justify treating Gosnell's conduct as irrelevant to the broader abortion controversy.


Read Ross Douthat's entire piece at the New York Times

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