The case of Kermit Gosnell reached the newspapers just a few days before the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. President Obama did not mention Gosnell in his official statement celebrating the anniversary. But the case sheds more light on Roe’s import than the statement did.
Obama did not refer to the word “abortion,” preferring instead to discuss “reproductive freedom” and the “fundamental principle” that “government should not intrude on private family matters.” The stories about Gosnell were a little less abstract. They told of a clinic where dirty instruments spread venereal disease, cats roamed and defecated freely, and some patients died. The state government conducted essentially no oversight; administrations of both parties wanted to keep abortion as free from governmental intrusion as possible.
Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic’s lack of hygiene is not the detail that has captured the most attention, or inspired the most outrage. It turns out that Gosnell frequently, perhaps hundreds of times, fully delivered intact fetuses and then used scissors on the newborn. In his words, he engaged in “snipping” to “ensure fetal demise.” In many cases, the fetuses were in the third trimester.
This procedure, sometimes called a “live-birth abortion,” is illegal. But not thanks to President Obama. As a state legislator in Illinois, he argued that the law should offer no protection to neonates if they had been delivered before viability. He said that protecting them would violate Roe v. Wade and undermine the right to abortion. What looked like infanticide to most people was for him, it must be inferred, a “private family matter.” When Gosnell applied his scissors to pre-viable children, he was, on Obama’s terms, merely exercising a cherished freedom.
Credit Obama with a real insight: The physical location of a human being conceived five months ago may mark the difference between whether he is considered a “fetus” or an “infant,” but it cannot mark a moral difference. Nor can it make a moral difference whether this being is partly inside the womb. When Congress moved to ban partial-birth abortion, most liberals took the view that any prohibition had to include a health exception: If in the judgment of the abortionist the safest method of . . . ensuring fetal demise . . . was to partly deliver the fetus, crush its skull, vacuum its brains, and then deliver the rest, then he had to be free to do so — at any stage of pregnancy. President Obama favored this health “exception.”
A few liberals — notably Supreme Court justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; also the celebrated intellectual Richard Posner in his role as a judge — made the moral point as well: What difference could it possibly make whether the fetus was partly out of the birth canal when its life was ended? Start with the correct view that location does not matter; add the liberal view that partial-birth abortion is justified whenever an abortionist says so; and it is hard to escape the conclusion that a live-birth abortion is justified whenever an abortionist rules it the safest method of killing.
We don’t know that Gosnell has closely followed the Supreme Court’s opinions or the president’s statements. We can say that his actions perfect the logic of the mainstream of the pro-choice movement. He has followed premises shared by the president and by four Supreme Court justices to their unavoidable conclusion.
In the academy, as well, liberals have been notoriously unable to articulate defenses of abortion that do not justify infanticide, and not particularly eager to try. Still less can they justify prohibitions on abortions late in pregnancy. The culpability of someone involved in an abortion may vary with the stage of pregnancy: The later it is, the less excuse there is for not recognizing the humanity of the unborn child. In gauging the immorality of an act we may rightly consider these subjective elements. But the objective injustice of abortion lies in the deliberate killing of a human being acting peaceably, and that injustice is identical regardless of the being’s age.
Concluding his statement, President Obama said, “I hope that we will recommit ourselves more broadly to ensuring that our daughters have the same rights, the same freedoms, and the same opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.” Let us commit ourselves to ensuring that our sons and daughters have the opportunity to live; an opportunity cruelly snatched away from more than 50 million human beings since the day the president commemorated.