3 Political Questions Raised by the Abortionist Gosnell Trial

Much like the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn., the horrific accounts of beheadings of hundreds of newborn babies described during the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell could have political implications beyond the trial itself. Here are three issues that may become part of the public debate because of the events at Gosnell's abortion clinic.

Obama's Position on Abortion

The trial serves as a reminder of President Barack Obama's contentious history regarding legislation that makes the killing of babies born alive, even if marked for abortion, a crime – the very crime that Gosnell is accused of committing.

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The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act became a federal law in 2002. It provided legal protection to babies born alive after a failed attempt to abort the child. During committee hearings as the bill was being debated, members of Congress heard testimony that at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., women seeking an abortion were induced to give birth, then the babies were left alone to die.

After passage of the federal law, several states sought to make the practice a state crime as well. Illinois, where Obama served as a state senator, was one of those states. Obama was one of the senators who led the opposition to the bill and spoke out against it on the Illinois Senate floor.

During the 2008 campaign, pro-life groups criticized Obama for claiming that he supported the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act but did not support the state law. The laws were nearly identical, pro-lifers claimed. In an interview on Christian Broadcasting Network, Obama accused those groups of "lying." Three different fact-checkers, though, found that the pro-life groups were correct – the state and federal laws were nearly identical.

Late-term Abortions

The Gosnell trial also raises questions about late-term abortions. Gosnell is accused of murdering babies marked for abortion. Many have been shocked and horrified at the trial testimonies describing how Gosnell, or a clinic worker, would sever the spine, or decapitate, these moving, breathing, sometimes crying, infants. His actions would have been perfectly legal, however, if they were accomplished while the baby was still inside the mother's womb.

In an April 16 conference call with the pro-choice group RH Reality Check, Tracy Weitz, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, was asked why a late-term abortion should be legal but Gosnell's actions should be illegal. She argued that the two cases are "world's apart."

"When inductions for delivery – that is, in the third trimester, when procedures are performed, when abortions are performed, they are usually done as inductions. That is, they look much more like a labor and delivery. And the fetus is traditionally euthanized before that procedure is initiated," she said.

Weitz, though, only described the difference between the two procedures without providing justification for why one should be legal and the other illegal.

Others, though, have taken arguments in favor of late-term abortions to their logical conclusion. In a 2011 article for the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued that the killing of newborn babies should be legal.

The abstract for that article reads: "Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call "after-birth abortion" (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."

Reactions to the Gosnell trial highlights, though, that the public is not willing to legalize the killing of newborn babies. This fact naturally leads to the question: If Gosnell's actions are illegal, why are late-term abortions legal?

New York Abortion Bill

The Gosnell trial suggests the need for tighter regulation and scrutiny of abortion clinics. It comes at the same time, though, that the state of New York is debating legislation to weaken regulation of abortion clinics.

If passed, the bill would make it easier to obtain a late-term abortion, allow non-physicians to perform abortions, and make future abortion regulations more difficult.

The effort is led by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Some pundits believe his actions are part of a strategy to capture the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Could the effort backfire, though?

Gosnell's clinic went for 18 years without an inspection after Gov. Tom Ridge, a pro-choice Republican, stopped routine inspections of abortion clinics. Testimony at the trial described the clinic's unsanitary conditions. Plus, Gosnell is also on trial for the death of one woman who had an abortion at the clinic. Ironically, Cuomo's bill, which could lead to similar incidents, is placed within a larger "women's rights" bill, dubbed the "Women's Equality Act."

A February poll commissioned by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pro-life research organization, found that 80 percent of New Yorkers oppose legalizing abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy and 75 percent oppose allowing non-physicians to perform abortions. Will the Gosnell trial further diminish support for the bill?

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