Christine M. Flowers: A fundamental right to distortion

Posted: June 17, 2011

ITHINK IT was during the Clinton era that I first heard the words "safe, legal and rare" used in connection with abortion.

It was a masterful bit of PR designed to appease everyone on a polarizing issue. Unfortunately, it contradicts the deeply held convictions of both pro-choice and pro-life activists.

The choicers like the "safe" and "legal" part but are unwilling to swallow any law that would make it more difficult for a woman to exercise her fundamental right to empty her womb. Lifers like me suspect any legal system with loopholes wider than Larry Craig's bathroom stance that make the idea of "rare" a sad joke.

I was reminded of this utopian attempt to reconcile two interests (reproductive autonomy vs. the right to life) when I heard that the Pennsylvania Senate had just approved, in a bipartisan show of common sense, a bill that places significant restrictions on abortion clinics. (It also provides for a cost-benefit analysis of those restrictions to pacify some unhappy Democrats and pro-choice Republicans.)

THIS COMES in the wake of what one of my colleagues recently called an "aberrant tragedy," and what I prefer to call the predictable result of Roe v. Wade's throwaway philosophy.

I'm talking, of course, about Kermit Gosnell and his West Philly House of Horrors, which I've spoken about before. A lot of people who fancy themselves sophisticated about legal, social and economic issues want us to believe that Gosnell's alleged killing of seven babies and one mother was a once-in-a- generation fluke, the perfect storm of poor women, rules that bar access to abortion and misplaced priorities.

After the Gosnell case became public, it took exactly three minutes for Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and like-minded organizations to plant stories in the local press stating that the way to prevent similar "aberrant tragedies" was not to impose stricter oversight on abortion providers but, rather, to more effectively enforce the laws already on the books (and perhaps weaken them a bit so those mythical poor women can have an easier time ending their pregnancies.)

Before I get the Mercy nuns after me (the ones who are none too happy about my comments on homelessness), let me explain that term "mythical."

Statistics show that the highest percentage of abortions are sought by middle-class women, and the birthrate bears that out. While the image of the indigent (and usually minority) teen trying to rid herself of a pregnancy due to rape is appealing to those who recoil at the mere thought of abortion restrictions, it's apparently much more "rare" than the type of activities conducted at Gosnell's death factory.

The point is this: Serious issues like health care shouldn't be the subject of partisan sniping about a so-called "war on women." We need to admit that there can and sometimes should be limits on all fundamental rights, not just the kind that involve firearms.

People who oppose the state's attempt to treat all free-standing abortion clinics as "ambulatory surgical facilities" take two general lines of attack: (1) It's fiscally unsound because it will put these clinics out of business due to untenable overhead costs; and (2) it's a punitive measure by an invasive government that has no business intruding on the private lives of its citizens.

And (surprise!) both of these arguments allow the pro-choice critics to blame conservatives in general and Republicans in particular - who are supposed to be both pro-business and anti-Big Government.

But the fact is, the government (local and federal) permits laws that advance the welfare of its citizens, and Pennsylvania has the authority and the obligation to regulate industries that directly affect our health. Even if our own Department of Health never got that memo. (Don't women who are having abortions deserve the same protection as other surgery patients? Liberal pro-choicers are only too happy to pile on regulations on every other human activity under the sun.)

While it may be fair to say that not all abortion clinics resemble Gosnell's ghoulish outfit, enough do to justify taking the utmost precautions. If that disturbs the choice crowd, it'll just have to deal with it the same way that abortion opponents have had to deal with questionable laws enacted pursuant to questionable Supreme Court precedent.

This Gosnell case has served an important purpose by shedding a revealing light on the motives of the abortion-rights movement. Far from being willing to reach that "safe, legal and rare" compromise, those who think the argument begins and ends at a woman's uterus have shown themselves to be uncompromising even in the most horrendous and egregious circumstances.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. See her on Channel 6's "Inside Story" Sunday at 11:30 a.m. Email

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