Christine M. Flowers: The wakeup call on abortion from West Philadelphia

Gosnell's West Philly clinic.
Gosnell's West Philly clinic.
Posted: January 21, 2011

THE GOD of irony works in mysterious ways.

Just as we're about to mark the 38th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision that was supposed to guarantee that abortion would become "safe" (while still remaining relatively "rare," as some of the more enthusiastic supporters claimed) as long as it was universally legalized, we've gotten some fairly graphic evidence that legality isn't such a great panacea after all.

A nonprofit in New York recently crunched the numbers and reported that 41 percent of pregnancies in the Big Apple in 2009 had ended in abortion, twice the national average. Not even legendary debater William Jennings Bryan would be able to convince anyone that 41 percent - or even 20 - is "rare."

And as far as "safe," well, Kermit Gosnell put the lie to that one. The West Philadelphia abortion doc has just been indicted in the deaths of eight people, including seven babies. Over three decades, Gosnell performed late-term abortions on low-income women, inducing labor in the sixth, seventh and even eighth months, and then allegedly stabbing the babies in the neck to sever their spinal cords.

There is no word to adequately describe what Gosnell is accused of. But the grand jury came up with a good approximation: murder.

That might make the choice crowd a bit uncomfortable as they celebrate Roe v. Wade, possibly the most specious Supreme Court decision of our lifetime.

After all, they're not used to such blunt talk when it comes to their treasured "fundamental right." Years of linguistic gymnastics used by abortion-rights supporters have made us opponents cautious when throwing around the word "murder."

We in the pro-life camp have been told to adopt a more conciliatory tone if we want to persuade people that abortion is wrong. And most of us got the message to be more civil.

But the indictment handed up by the grand jury this week shows that the emperor lost his clothes a long time ago, that abortion in the 21st century may be legal - but it's certainly neither as safe nor as rare as many of its proponents frequently claim.

Clearly, groups that care about women's health are just as horrified by his acts as pro-lifers. But I suspect they're upset for a different reason. They're unhappy that the mothers' lives were placed in jeopardy, but probably don't have as much sympathy for the tiny carcasses thrown into jars lining the shelves of Gosnell's office or filling his freezer.

Sure, they'll say how horrible it is that the man was allowed to practice for three decades with relative impunity, but their outrage is primarily directed at the Gosnell who brutalized vulnerable women and not the Gosnell who mutilated babies.

We'll probably be told not to blame the whole community of abortion providers for one man's behavior, and warned that this is what happens when you criminalize the procedure. That's what always happens when the seamier side of even legal abortion seeps into the mainstream.

For years we've been fed a sanitized version of the procedure, even to the extent of trying to make the late-term variety (don't dare call it partial birth!) into a health issue for the mother.

At least on that count, abortion-rights supporters haven't been successful. Madison Avenue can influence the way we think about a lot of things, but no PR person on Earth can make the crushing of an almost full-term infant's skull palatable.

Still, the pro-choice lobby has been surprisingly effective in making us believe that Roe is here to stay.

But perhaps there's a chink in that belief. Depending on how people react to the indictment of Gosnell, and the shocking news that four out of 10 babies are terminated in New York, we might have reached a critical mass with respect to how far we're willing to treat Roe as inviolate.

Roe talks about the legality of abortion, but in ignoring the human and social meaning of the procedure (despite former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's sanctimonious preaching) it's clearly created a lobby for whom the "needs" (and sometimes even the convenience) of a woman takes precedence over everything else.

Perhaps the indictment of Gosnell will force us to now consider that full meaning of legal abortion.

So here's a message for NOW, NARAL Pro Choice America and Kim Gandy.

Listen up, Emily's List, Catholics for Choice and Nancy Pelosi.

There's a long-distance call for you, Harry Blackmun.

Sometimes, it now seems, it's hard to tell the difference between abortion and a capital crime.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. E-mail

cflowers1961@yahoo.com. She blogs at philly.com/philly/blogs/flowersshow.

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