PLEASE NOTE: Some of the links in this post lead to graphic and frankly horrifying material. I also briefly discuss some of that material below. Use caution. Also, this is a post about abortion, a subject that generates strong feelings. Please think before commenting. Rude, abusive, or inflammatory comments will not be published.
I’m surprised to see conservative friends and bloggers talking about the Kermit Gosnell story as though it’s some sort of secret. I heard about the story ages ago, when it broke, and I remember Gosnell’s alleged crimes being both widely covered and universally condemned. (I just googled “kermit gosnell 2011” and on the first page found stories by ABC, CBS, The Nation, and The Huffington Post.) And as Irin Carmon points out, there has certainly been no conspiracy of silence on the left, where feminist thinkers and journalists have been trying to draw attention to the economic and legal conditions that caused women to seek Gosnell out in the first place.
In a way, conservatives are not wrong to make a big deal out of Gosnell’s story. Late term abortion is rightly viewed as far more morally troubling than early abortion. (That’s probably why it is so extraordinarily rare.) Gosnell is accused of killing babies who were apparently born alive as late in gestation as 30 weeks — a point at which, although their viability might have been marginal, they were at least able to cry and breathe. We are one and all horrified by such an action, of course. And it would be dishonest, or at least bizarrely formalistic, to have one view of terminating a fetus capable of crying and breathing on its own when that fetus is inside a woman, and another view when it is outside.
But if we can all agree on that, then it seems the reverse should hold as well: that earlier abortions are far less troubling. That is, leaving aside the argument (which has no traction with me) that a “life” or a “soul” magically “enters” a fertilized egg, we ought to measure the degree of our disapproval of abortion by the degree to which a fetus resembles a human being. I am not particularly moved by Mike Huckabee’s “heartbeat” standard, but it certainly shows that Huckabee, like most people, places the morality of dealing with a fetus along a spectrum. If humanness truly “begins at conception,” there’s no logical reason to draw the line at heartbeats. But if we measure the moral problem of abortion along a spectrum, then what Huckabee and I disagree about is where to draw an admittedly arbitrary line along that spectrum. But what we agree about is that earlier is better. Indeed, this is the position taken by Will Saletan, who is generally anti-abortion.
What all this points to, though, is a wide consensus that we should make abortion easier to get, not harder. It’s elementary that the more hurdles there are to getting an abortion — price, availability, preconditions — the longer it will take, on average, for a woman to procure one. Moreover, we should make medical services for women universally and easily available. This report of a survey by the Guttmacher Institute shows that 71% of women who sought an abortion after 16 weeks did so, in part, because they did not know they were pregnant or misjudged their conception date. Better access to medical care would enable women to seek a medical opinion earlier in their pregnancies, which would enable them to seek abortions earlier in the process. This is what the “pro-choice” argument is about in the profoundest sense: enabling women to take charge of their own bodies and their own medical care. But creating a truly pro-choice environment in that sense would also have the salutary effect of tending to push abortions back to much, much earlier in the pregnancy. If we are serious about the idea that late-term abortion is morally troubling, this should be quite a welcome development.
(Of course, if we are not serious about that idea — if anti-abortion rhetoric is just a tribal rallying cry empty of actual content — then please carry on with the legislation re: parental consent, spousal consent, transvaginal wanding, bizarre building codes for abortion clinics, etc., etc.)