In 1973, the Supreme Court dramatically and abruptly changed the abortion debate with its Roe v. Wade decision permitting abortion on demand at least in the first trimester of pregnancy. Before that, the issue was being argued in state legislatures across the country. Suddenly, the argument was over and legal abortion became the default position. Pro-life advocates were reduced to fighting at the edges to make abortions more difficult to obtain.
Now, there has been another single event with equal debate-changing potential – the first-degree murder conviction of late-term-abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose grisly operation included killing babies who survived abortion attempts by plunging scissors into their necks. It won’t change the law to an anti-abortion default, but it should strengthen the resolve of abortion foes who have felt themselves to be in an uphill struggle.
Some are already resisting the implications of the Gosnell case. Planned Parenthood, in the most tone-deaf remark uttered this year so far, praised the conviction and said it would “ensure that no woman is victimized by Kermit Gosnell ever again. This case has made clear that we must have and enforce laws that protect access to safe and legal abortions.” It’s all about women’s rights – no babies here, move along move along. In its reporting of the verdict, The New York Times said Gosnell was guilty of “killing fetuses.” No babies here. The Times’ Andrew Rosenthal warned that pro-life advocates would make too much of Gosnell, whose “horrific crime” was clearly illegal and “outside the framework established by Roe v. Wade.”
Roe v. Wade, however, did not exactly draw a hard-and-fast line. The age of “viability” keeps changing as medical technology advances. And what was supposed to be confined to the first trimester has become common in the second, with fewer restrictions than there could be. Yes, Gosnell’s bloody, dirty horror show of a clinic might have been rare, but it was made possible by Pennsylvania’s decision to look the other way instead of continuing state inspections.
If nothing else, this case should make all of us – on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice divide – think long and hard about why we hold the positions we do. How much worse was what Gosnell did than late-term “fetuses” who are aborted in the womb? How far back in the pregnancy timeline do we go before a woman’s rights trump the child’s? This case should remind us of something too many people want to forget: At the beginning of the abortion process, there are two lives involved. When it is over, there is only one.