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SOCIETY: Feature

Killing with Blindness

Abortion After Dr. Gosnell

by Marcia Segelstein


Article originally appeared in
Salvo 26

Whether the shocking revelations of what took place in Kermit Gosnell's abortion clinic in Philadelphia will ultimately be viewed as a turning point on the issue of abortion remains to be seen. At the very least, the horrors revealed have prompted many commentators and lawmakers to reconsider the fine line between late-term abortion and infanticide. Pulling back the curtain on what can—and does—happen in abortion clinics makes the discomfiting reality that abortion is the killing of babies harder to evade.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell was sentenced to life in prison for snipping the necks of babies who had been born alive during late-term abortions performed at his facility. But, as the Christian Post starkly put it, "if Gosnell had killed the fetuses before delivering them, his actions would have been legal."1 Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, believes that with the Gosnell trial, "people are forced to confront the icky factor of abortion, of what abortion really is." She wonders whether, as a result, people will see the "logical fallacies" of abortion.2 If followers of the grisly trial felt squeamish about what happened to those babies outside the womb, how would they feel knowing the details of what happens inside during legal abortions? As Kirsten Powers, a pro-choice columnist for USA Today wrote,

Regardless of . . . whether Gosnell was killing the infants one second after they left the womb instead of partially inside or completely inside the womb—as in a routine late-term abortion—is merely a matter of geography. That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.3

While Powers's issue is with late-term abortions (typically defined as beyond 16–18 weeks), the same concerns exist no matter what stage of pregnancy a woman is in.

Since abortion was made legal in the U.S. over forty years ago, for many Americans, it has always been a fact of life and the rule of law. So perhaps a brief history is in order. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion by ruling on two companion cases, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. While Roe established a right to abortion with a post-viability restriction, Doe allowed for such a broad "health" exception to that limitation (defining health to include "all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age—relevant to the wellbeing of the patient") that it could be applied to virtually every unwanted pregnancy. Since Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored both rulings, instructed that Roe and Doe "be read together," the two cases effectively legalized abortion on demand through all nine months of pregnancy.

Slowly Emerging Restrictions

It wasn't until nearly twenty years later, in the 1992 Supreme Court ruling Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that states were given the right to limit access to abortion. Since then, almost every state has added restrictions of one kind or another.

In March of this year, North Dakota passed what's being called the country's toughest anti-abortion measure. The law bans most abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected—typically six to seven weeks into a pregnancy. While Governor Jack Dalrymple signed the bill into law, he expects it to face serious court challenges.

The Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act, passed earlier this year, requires that when a woman seeks an abortion at 12 weeks or later, the doctor must check for a fetal heartbeat. If one is detected, the abortion cannot be performed except under certain specific conditions, such as if the pregnancy was due to rape or incest, or if the mother's life is at risk. This law was temporarily blocked by a federal judge.

Texas recently took center stage on the abortion issue when, amid much tumult and a disruptive filibuster, the state passed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks and imposing certain health and safety requirements on abortuaries.

On the national level, a House of Representatives subcommittee held hearings in May on a bill to ban abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, proposed by Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, is based on evidence that unborn babies can experience pain at that stage of gestation. The bill was later amended to make it apply nationwide, and it was passed in the House by a vote of 228 to 196. Although it stands little chance of getting through the Senate and becoming law, many consider the House vote a symbolic victory.

Levatino's Testimony

One of the witnesses called by the House subcommittee was Dr. Anthony Levatino, an obstetrician/gynecologist who, during his residency training and the first five years of his practice, performed approximately 1,200 abortions, in both the first and second trimesters. He provided an insider's cold, hard look at the reality of legal abortion.

For example, his provided a graphic description of a suction D&E (dilation and evacuation) abortion, typically used in the second trimester. The procedure begins with dilation of the cervix and the insertion of a suction catheter to draw out the amniotic fluid. "With suction complete," Levatino testified,

look for your Sopher clamp. This instrument is about thirteen inches long and made of stainless steel. At the end are located jaws about 2½ inches long and about ¾ of an inch wide with rows of sharp ridges or teeth. This instrument is for grasping and crushing tissue. . . . Picture yourself reaching in with the Sopher clamp and grasping anything you can. . . . Once you have grasped something inside, squeeze on the clamp to set the jaws and pull hard—really hard. You feel something let go and out pops a fully formed leg about six inches long. Reach in again and grasp whatever you can. Set the jaw and pull really hard once again and out pops an arm about the same length. Reach in again and again with that clamp and tear out the spine, intestines, heart and lungs. The toughest part of a D&E abortion is extracting the baby's head. . . . You will know you have it right when you crush down on the clamp and see white gelatinous material coming through the cervix. That was the baby's brains. You can then extract the skull pieces. Many times a little face will come out and stare back at you.4

Even first-trimester abortions are gruesome. A typical method used from the tenth to the twelfth week of pregnancy is the suction D&C (dilation and curettage) procedure. Writing on the ProLife Action League website, Dr. Levatino notes that "when the abortionist finishes a suction D&C, he has to open a little suction bag and he has to literally reassemble the child. He has to do that because he wants to make sure he didn't leave anything behind."5

It should be noted that Dr. Levatino re-evaluated his position after his young daughter was struck by a car and killed. He no longer performs abortions.

Stanek's Testimony

As a registered nurse in the Labor and Delivery Department at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Jill Stanek had a very personal encounter with a post-abortion survivor. The 21-to-22-week-old baby, who his parents chose to abort because he had Down syndrome, was born alive and taken to the soiled utility room to die. Stanek held him in her arms for the 45 minutes that he survived, an experience that she calls life-changing. "I went from an ambivalent personally pro-life person at best to a pro-life activist in the span of those 45 minutes," she said in an interview. She also explained that what Gosnell did wrong, legally speaking, was not killing the babies, but failing to do so while they were still inside their mothers' wombs.

In induced labor abortion, which is what Gosnell did, the cervix is dilated and the baby is born whole. The baby is injected [in utero] with a medication that kills the baby, usually digoxin. Gosnell said he wasn't very good at giving the injection and just delivered babies alive.

Stanek also provided testimony before the subcommittee considering the Pain-Capable bill. She cited specific cases of babies born alive during abortions in Florida, and she noted recent charges made by former employees against Houston abortionist Douglas Karpen. The charges include allegations that Karpen "routinely kills babies after they are born by puncturing the fontanel (the soft spot at the top of the head), or impaling the stomach with a sharp instrument, twisting the head off, or puncturing the throat with his finger," testified Stanek. She then commented,

It is easy to be horrified by heart-wrenching stories such as these, and to imagine the torture abortion survivors endure as they are being killed. But it is somehow not so easy for some to envision preborn babies the same age being tortured as they are killed by similar methods.

Stanek went on to note that prenatal surgery is becoming more commonplace, and with it the use of anesthesia. "Meanwhile, babies of an identical age are torn apart during abortions with no pain relief."6

Dr. Maureen Condic, an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, also testified about the development of the nervous system in unborn babies. "The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development," she said. "This is the earliest point at which the fetus experiences pain in any capacitiy."7

Even the attorney who defended Gosnell, Jack McMahon, believes there should be restrictions as to how late an abortion can be performed. "I've come out of this case realizing that 24 weeks is a bad determiner," he told Megyn Kelly of Fox News. "It should be like 16, 17 weeks."8 Kirsten Powers points out that "even liberal Europe gets this. In France, Germany, Italy and Norway, abortion is illegal after 12 weeks" in most cases.9

Questioning Moral Differences

The emergence of serious discussions in legislatures and the public square about placing time limits on abortion is a positive development. But the use of markers like fetal heartbeat or the ability to feel pain is still somewhat arbitrary and therefore logically problematic. Is it wrong to kill an unborn baby only when his heartbeat can be heard or he is developed enough to feel pain? Or is it wrong to kill an unborn baby at all times?

Writing for the Daily Beast, Powers makes a good argument for banning late-term abortions. "We live in a country where if a six-months-pregnant woman started downing shots of vodka in a bar or lit up a cigarette, people might want her arrested," she writes. And yet, "that same woman could walk into an abortion clinic, no questions asked, and be injected with a drug that would stop her baby's heart."10 Indeed, but her analogy could be logically applied to a woman who is six days pregnant.

Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference shortly after the House Judiciary Committee approved the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. She was asked by reporter John McCormack of the Weekly Standard what the "moral difference" was between killing "a baby born alive at 23 weeks and aborting her moments before birth." Evading the question, Pelosi responded with apparent indignation that it was "reprehensible" for the committee "to decide to disrespect a judgment a woman makes about her reproductive health." She added somewhat incoherently that, "as a practicing and respectful Catholic this is sacred ground when we talk about this."11

National Review columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez described Pelosi's comments as a perfect example of the "schizophrenic subterfuge" that abortion supporters find it necessary to employ when faced with the realities of abortion. The term came from a 1970 editorial in the journal California Medicine, which, Lopez noted, described the "new ethic" that was invading medicine at the time, prompted by the sexual revolution. This ethic required

a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected.12

A Gallup poll conducted in January found that 64 percent of Americans believe that second-trimester abortions should be illegal, while 80 percent believe that third-trimester abortions should be banned. More recently, a HuffPost/YouGov poll showed that by a margin of 59 to 30 percent, Americans favor a federal law to ban "most abortions" after 20 weeks. While this is good news for abortion opponents, it still raises the question of what difference a week—or two, or ten—makes. Call it schizophrenic subterfuge, or better yet, willful blindness. 


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