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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 1
Eastertide 2011

Legal, but not safe or rare

Grisly Philadelphia doctor story raises troubling questions about abortion

by Colleen Carroll Campbell

His clinic reeked of cat urine, its furniture and blankets bore blood stains and a padlock rendered its emergency exit useless. Untrained assistants posing as doctors used rusty, unsterilized medical instruments that spread venereal disease among the women who came seeking abortions. The same corroded tubes that suctioned unborn babies from their mothers’ wombs were used in patients’ mouths when they needed oxygen. Everywhere you looked, there were dead bodies: in the refrigerator and freezer, milk jugs, orange-juice cartons, shoe boxes and cat-food bins.

Not to worry, though. The bodies and body parts — including the jars of tiny feet that Philadelphia abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell kept around for “research” — were not those of real, rights-bearing human persons. They were the corpses of unborn or, in some cases, prematurely newborn infants targeted for abortion. They were mere fetal matter, objects of that much-revered constitutional right to privacy that seven US Supreme Court justices discovered in an emanation of a penumbra 38 years ago.

The commemoration of the companion Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton rulings brought with it all the familiar sights and sounds in a nation divided by abortion. There were the images of an estimated 200,000 pro-life marchers swarming the National Mall, another 40,000 pro-life marchers pulsing along the San Francisco waterfront and pockets of pro-choice counter-protesters in both places. There were the usual press releases and public statements, including President Barack Obama’s oblique ode to “women’s health and reproductive freedom” and to the “principle that government should not intrude on private family matters”.

Obama’s statement never mentioned abortion explicitly, perhaps because doing so might evoke the same grisly images and squeamish feelings that stories about Gosnell’s clinic generated when they surfaced two days before Roe’s anniversary. Abortion-rights advocates rushed to remind us that much of what Gosnell did was illegal — including “snipping”, Gosnell’s habit of inducing labor in a woman and waiting until her baby was born, then jamming scissors in the back of the baby’s neck and severing his spinal cord. Gosnell said it was his way of “ensuring fetal demise” for babies like the 30-week-old, 6-pound boy whose spine he snipped after joking that the baby “could walk me to the bus stop”.

The Philadelphia grand jury report about Gosnell’s crimes details a chilling pattern of poor oversight by several government agencies, as well as a visit by a National Abortion Federation reviewer who was repulsed enough by Gosnell’s practices to deny him the group’s approval seal but not enough to report him to authorities. It was not that no one knew what Gosnell was up to, the report said, it was just that no one wanted to do anything about it. One reason: Under the pro-choice administration of former Governor Tom Ridge, the report said, “officials concluded that inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up to women’ seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased.”

Gosnell has been charged with the third-degree murder of one woman and first-degree murders of seven infants, whose deaths violate the 2002 Born-Alive Infants Protection Act that makes it illegal to kill infants that survive abortions. Obama voted against the Illinois version of that law three times as a state senator, dismissing it as a stealth step toward limiting abortion rights.

In a sense, he was right. Once you admit that an unwanted human being barely outside the birth canal is a rights-bearing baby, it’s tough to argue that one inside the birth canal is disposable fetal material. Similarly, the distinction between the 24-week-old fetuses Gosnell aborted legally and the 25-week-old fetuses he aborted illegally makes little sense, given that infants born younger than 24 weeks sometimes survive and Doe’s wide-open health exception renders late-term abortion limits toothless anyway.

Gosnell himself seemed perplexed about the outrage surrounding abortions he was once hailed as a hero for performing, back when they were thought to be legal.
“Is it possible you could explain the seven counts?” he asked at his arraignment. “I understand the one count because of the patient who died but not the others.”

One could ask abortion-rights defenders like Obama the same question: Could you please explain why some abortions are an outrage and others merely a choice? And could you explain exactly how — in a nation that has allowed clinics like Gosnell’s to operate with impunity and an estimated 50 million children to be aborted since 1973 — Roe has made abortion “safe, legal and rare”?

Didn’t think so.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, a member of the Voices editorial board, is an author, former presidential speechwriter and television and radio host of “Faith & Culture” on EWTN. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and children. Her web site is This column originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, 2011.

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