The right tries to pin Gosnell on Obama

Parsing the bait-and-switch with Gosnell and all abortion care -- and a response to Ross Douthat

Published April 23, 2013 9:59PM (EDT)

Dr. Kermit Gosnell       (Reuters/Yong Kim)
Dr. Kermit Gosnell (Reuters/Yong Kim)

Later this week, President Obama will keynote Planned Parenthood's annual gala. According to some antiabortion activists, he shouldn't, because Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murder. "In the wake of the gruesome and horrific revelations emanating from the trial of abortion Doctor Kermit Gosnell, we urge President Obama to cancel his fundraising speech for big abortion giant Planned Parenthood on Thursday night," said a statement from Live Action, which made its name trying to bring down Planned Parenthood with James O'Keefe-inspired video stings.

Gosnell, who is on trial in Philadelphia for the murder of one woman and, as of now, four infant deaths, didn't work for Planned Parenthood. But Planned Parenthood provides abortions and receives federal funding to provide sex ed and birth control -- you know, the stuff that helps prevent abortions. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Title X -- the program under which Planned Parenthood receives federal funding, “prevents about 1.94 million unintended pregnancies, including almost 400,000 teen pregnancies. Preventing these pregnancies results in 860,000 fewer unintended births, 810,000 fewer abortions and 270,000 fewer miscarriages.” That's the same funding social conservatives want to scrap because Planned Parenthood is also the nation's largest provider of abortions.

But all this is part and parcel of the attempt to conflate the abuses of which Gosnell is accused with all abortions in America -- and to try to pin down Obama as an "extremist" while they're at it. (By the way, Lena Dunham is also being honored at the event, as if her video for the Obama campaign didn't cause enough social conservative paroxysms.) If you're wondering how shutting down Planned Parenthood, the stated goal, will do anything but give more openings to the Gosnells of the world, you're missing the key bait-and-switch in the argument, which is to pretend that all abortion providers are like Gosnell and all abortions are tantamount to live delivery of a viable fetus followed by snipping its neck.

In the case of the former -- saying that all abortion providers are unethical or unsafe -- why should Gosnell's sadism indict his entire profession if we don't do the same for this Oklahoma dentist whose unsanitary practices infected at least three people with HIV? (One difference, perhaps, is that abortion providers are stigmatized far more than dentists are. But that's the right's doing.) That's also the point Obama made when NBC News asked him about the case last week, another victory for the right's pressure campaign: "If an individual, carrying out an abortion, operating a clinic, or doing anything else is violating medical ethics, violating the law, then they should be prosecuted."

The latter point, which seeks to focus on the illegal post-viability procedures Gosnell is accused of performing rather than the desire to ban all abortions and limit access to birth control, has been the strategy all along. The most deft practitioner of this is Ross Douthat, who steps back, as if with some sympathy to his opponents, to write on his blog, "To respond effectively to the doubts about abortion that fetal snipping summons up, pro-choice advocates would need arguments that ... acknowledge and come to terms with the goriness of third-trimester abortions while simultaneously persuading the conflicted and uncommitted of their validity, and that somehow take ownership of the 'violence' and 'gruesomeness' of abortion ... without giving aid and comfort to the pro-life cause."

Some of those words are referring back to women talking about abortion ambivalence. But people are ambivalent about a lot of things, including parenthood; that doesn't mean supporting government policies that would strip women of autonomous decision-making altogether, which is Douthat's ultimate aim. No one says you have to love everyone's abortions. No one says you have to love your own, if you're among the one in three women who has or will have one. The public health question and the state's interest also rests on the fact that women have abortions even when they're banned; they just don't have safe or legal ones.

Douthat argues that pro-choice absolutists like myself aren't going to convince the mushy middle, "whose support for abortion rights tends to waver most when they’re confronted with the reality of what abortion actually does to fetal life — in clean, well-funded facilities as well as filthy ones, and in the womb as much as on Gosnell’s operating tables." But this is obfuscation (to borrow Douthat's word): According to the CDC, 64 percent of abortions were performed at less than eight weeks gestation -- that would be embryonic life, not fetal life -- and 91.7 percent at less than 13 weeks gestation.  Douthat and his ilk would of course prefer to have this conversation at the end of the extreme that benefits his argument, as if it's only those rare later abortions they want to get rid of, and as if pro-choice people ceding that ground would somehow end the argument.

But notably, Douthat doesn't engage the points in my piece about how "pro-life" restrictions intended to limit abortions -- from bans on public funding to legislation to shut down clinics to waiting periods -- mean in practice that fewer women can access the abortions they want earlier in their pregnancies. (This would also require him to engage on grounds of female autonomy, which he prefers to either ignore or simply cringe at.) That's before we even get to the right's concerted shutdown of ways to lower the unintended pregnancy rate in the first place, from comprehensive sex ed to access to contraception.  According to Guttmacher, the people who have access to all of those things -- higher-income women -- saw their abortion rate decrease 28 percent between 2000 and 2008. At the same time, a period that happens to encompass the "pro-life" Bush administration, the abortion rate increased among low-income women by 8 percent.

In other words, though some women will always need or want abortions (fine by me), we know a fair amount about how to reduce the abortion rate. It doesn't have much to do with saying that later abortions make some people uncomfortable. It has a lot more to do with providing women actual healthcare and information, which is the business Planned Parenthood is in, and the policies President Obama generally supports. That's absolutely worth celebrating.

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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Abortion Abortion Rights Anti-abortion Movement Barack Obama Conservatives Editor's Picks Kermit Gosnell