Why The Response To A Philadelphia Abortion Doctor’s Ongoing Murder Trial Gets It All Wrong

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"Why The Response To A Philadelphia Abortion Doctor’s Ongoing Murder Trial Gets It All Wrong"

A Philadelphia-area abortion doctor is currently on trial for murder, based on gruesome reports about the illegal techniques that he and his staff used to perform late-term abortions for desperate, low-income women. Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s high-profile case is sparking understandable outrage, as evidence has emerged that he may have taken advantage of vulnerable women, violated multiple medical codes, and performed inhumane surgeries.

According to prosecutors, Gosnell’s clinic went 17 years without an inspection — and abortion opponents are leveraging that to go after other abortion clinics that have no affiliation with Gosnell or his crimes. “Unfortunately and tragically in Pennsylvania, facilities were going uninspected for years,” Maria Gallagher, a lobbyist with the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, said in reference to the ongoing trial. That’s a big reason why abortion opponents like Gallagher were able to push Pennsylvania legislators to tighten restrictions on abortion clinics in 2011, updating state law to require abortion clinics to adhere to the same standards as outpatient surgery centers. According to NPR, Gosnell’s case was “mentioned frequently” as Pennsylvania lawmakers considered, and ultimately approved, the unnecessary new restrictions.

If proven guilty, there’s no doubt that Gosnell and his staff committed horrific crimes. But the knee-jerk reaction to his murder trial — the assumption that most abortion doctors aren’t adhering to medical standards, and that the women who visit health clinics are in grave danger of receiving unsafe care — is off-base. In fact, as the right-wing pushes for tighter abortion clinic standards to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, that crusade could end up having exactly the opposite effect.

Pennsylvania’s abortion clinic restrictions fit into a larger anti-choice effort across the country that is solely intended to force abortion clinics to close their doors. In states like North Dakota, Virginia, Indiana, Mississippi, and Texas, abortion opponents are pushing legislation to force abortion clinics to adhere to unneccesary new regulations in the name of “ensuring women’s safety.” That sounds like a noble goal. But these measures — known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP — aren’t really about ensuring women’s safety at all. As Mississippi’s Republican governor once admitted behind closed doors at an anti-choice event, TRAP laws are about indirectly restricting women’s access to abortion by shutting down health clinics.

In Pennsylvania specifically, one Planned Parenthood affiliate was forced to spend nearly a half a million dollars to get two of its clinics into compliance with the new regulations. That involved unnecessary updates like installing hands-free sinks, replacing the floors, and updating the air-conditioning system. The affiliate’s CEO, Dayle Steinberg, explained to NPR that the state’s stricter requirements didn’t actually do anything to improve the care provided to the women at her clinics, where the complication rate is already less than one-tenth of 1 percent. “They were thinly disguised as improving patient safety, when really it was about increasing the cost for abortion providers — hoping that some of them wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Steinberg said.

In fact, women’s health advocates consider TRAP measures to be some of the most dangerous threats to women’s access to safe abortion services across the country. In North Dakota, where anti-choice Republicans are advancing the most stringently anti-abortion legislation in the nation, one doctor warned lawmakers that the new TRAP law will force women into dangerous, “backroom” abortion procedures. Retired pediatrician Ted Kleiman worked at a hospital before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, and he watched women die from botched abortions. “The thought of returning to those days is really beyond imagination,” Kleiman told his state lawmakers, urging them not to shut down the only abortion clinic left in North Dakota.

Women’s health advocates, particularly those who work at health clinics, are extremely concerned about ensuring that women receive the highest standards of reproductive care. But clinics that help women terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester of pregnancy — which can involve simply taking a pill, or having a less-invasive surgical procedure — aren’t analogous to Gosnell’s clinic, which performed incredibly late-term, illegal abortion services. Over-regulating the clinics like Planned Parenthood’s, where the vast majority of patients are already receiving incredibly safe care, will actually limit women’s options instead of keeping them safe. That could lead more desperate women who feel like they don’t have any other options left to seek out doctors like Gosnell.

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