A guest post from Sarah Erdreich, the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell is currently on trial in Pennsylvania, charged with eight counts of murder. For decades, Gosnell provided abortion services to primarily low-income, minority, and immigrant women in an unsafe and unhygienic clinic. Despite numerous complaints to state agencies and the forty-six lawsuits filed against him, Gosnell’s clinic was only inspected five times after it opened in 1979; the last inspection occurred in 1993. When officials finally did raid his clinic in 2010, it was on suspicion of drug violations. The eight counts of murder that Gosnell faces include one for a woman that died from a painkiller overdose before her procedure, and seven infants that he allegedly killed with scissors after they were born.
Those acts, together with a grand jury report that spares no detail in describing the squalid and unhygienic conditions of Gosnell’s clinic, paint a grim picture of a man that never should have been allowed to practice medicine. They also call into question just why state agencies did so little to investigate the many complaints that were made over two decades.
The state of Pennsylvania has responded by enacting new anti-choice laws that make abortion care more difficult for people to access and afford. Clinics that provide surgical abortions now must meet the same medical and construction standards as outpatient surgery centers; while clinics were exempt from some regulations, such as having elevators of a certain size, a number of the new regulations required clinics to undergo expensive renovations. In 2008, 82% of all Pennsylvania counties lacked an abortion provider; five clinics have closed in the last year, meaning that that number is undoubtedly even higher now.
Pennsylvania is hardly alone in requiring only abortion clinics, as opposed to all freestanding outpatient surgical clinics, to adhere to specific and extensive standards. From insisting that providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals to mandating the size of operating rooms, states around the country have enacted numerous laws in the past several years that sound benign on paper but have devastating real-life effects. The rationale for many of these laws is that they are necessary to safeguard the health and well-being of people who need abortion care. But when legal abortions are performed by trained medical professionals, the health risks are already very low; according to the non-partisan Guttmacher Institute, “[f]ewer than 1% of all U.S. abortion patients experience a major complication and the risk of death associated with abortion is 10 times as low as that associated with childbirth.”
When a woman dies during childbirth, politicians do not insist that all hospitals adhere to new structural requirements, and activists do not claim that since a woman died, no OB/GYN should be trusted. Yet the anti-choice movement has shown no such common sense and sound judgment when it comes to Kermit Gosnell. Instead, they have exploited this tragedy to enact laws that either force clinics to charge more for their services so they can pay for renovations, or close altogether. Making abortion more expensive and less accessible will not lower the abortion rate in this country. Instead, it will create an environment that drives women to desperate measures such as self-abortion or turning to untrained, but inexpensive, physicians.