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Return of the Back Alley
Its practice and mores are still with us.


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Rich Lowry

If the famous pro-choice litany is “safe, legal, and rare,” the logical endpoint of a culture of abortion on demand is none of the above.

Legal abortion was supposed to end “back-alley abortions,” both their dangers and their entanglements with shady characters. But the practice and the mores of the back alley are with us still, tolerated by people for whom the ready provision of abortion trumps all else.

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Pro-choicers have long invoked the dignity of women. The nightmarish case of the Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell and the sting video of a counselor at a Planned Parenthood clinic cooperating with a supposed pimp show the dignity of women is decidedly secondary.

The 261-page grand-jury report in the Gosnell case could have been written by Stephen King. Gosnell’s gruesome operation was, on its own terms, highly efficient. During the day, his assistants administered labor-inducing drugs to pregnant women, overwhelmingly poor minorities. Then the good doctor showed up in the evening.

On some women, he performed traditional abortions, occasionally butchering them in the process. Other women had delivered babies before he arrived. Here, he performed post-birth abortions — cutting the spinal cords of the newborns with scissors. Their tiny bodies were disposed of with all the care you’d expect: Some were reportedly stored in paper bags in the employees’ refrigerator.

Gosnell specialized in late-term abortions that were technically illegal in Pennsylvania (although the Supreme Court has made even this prohibition problematic). The grand-jury report recounts one case of a 17-year-old girl who was almost 30 weeks, or seven-and-a-half months, pregnant. After her six-pound child was born, Gosnell killed it and disposed of the body in a shoe box.

Any profession has it miscreants. Gosnell’s other criminal enterprise was liberally prescribing painkillers. Does that discredit all doctors? The difference is that no powerful lobby is devoted on principle to enabling dubious prescriptions. In a powerful piece for Politics Daily, Melinda Henneberger notes how abortion-rights activists fight proposed regulations of abortion clinics as “TRAP laws” — Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or just another dirty trick to erode abortion rights.

When the pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge replaced the pro-life Democrat Robert Casey as Pennsylvania governor in the 1990s, regulation of abortion basically stopped. The Department of Health ceased inspections of clinics and ignored complaints and warnings about Gosnell. An evaluator from the National Abortion Federation was horrified by his filthy facility but didn’t report him. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania kept mum while it repeatedly treated women who’d been injured by Gosnell.

No one wanted to interfere for fear of chilling the right to choose. The grand-jury report says no one acted “because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”

In all his awfulness, Gosnell clarifies the moral questions surrounding abortion. He used all the right euphemisms. His clinic was the “Women’s Medical Society.” What he did to newborns was “snipping,” in the cause of “ensuring fetal demise.”

In Gosnell’s case, the frank pejorative “baby killer” is inarguably apt; he’s charged with murder. But if that’s so, what about other abortions? If Gosnell was wrong to deliver 24-week-old babies and kill them, why is it acceptable to destroy a 24-week fetus in the womb? If ending a life is wrong at 30 weeks, why not at 20, or 15, or 10?

Compared to Gosnell, the Planned Parenthood employee caught on tape instructing a man posing as a pimp how his underage prostitutes could use her clinic is a saint. Her superiors swiftly fired her on grounds that she violated the organization’s “core values.” But no one should be surprised that someone in her line of work doesn’t have the conscience of William Wilberforce, especially when it comes to matters of sexual morality.

All the talk of dignity is nice. At bottom, though, ensuring and facilitating fetal demise is a lowdown, morally corrupting business.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.



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