After the sensational murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, a curious thing happened to American public opinion: nothing at all. According to a new Gallup poll, Americans remain divided into the same basic camps with respect to abortion rights.
By JUSTIN DYER
Special to The Star
Gosnells crimes which include killing three post-birth infants and negligently administering a lethal dose of Demerol to a 41-year-old Nepali refugee had no effect on Gallups poll numbers, which have remained constant since the 1970s. Given the cases sordid and heart-wrenching details, Gallups seeming non-story (public opinion same as always) is significant.
Conditions at Gosnells West Philadelphia clinic were deplorable. The 2011 grand jury report described a baby charnel house, where Gosnell regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors.
Women seeking Gosnells services mainly poor, mainly minorities fared no better. At his filthy fraud of a business, Gosnell overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths.
Many in the pro-life crowd have used the case primarily to harp on media bias rather than to teach a broader lesson about the principles of our abortion laws, which are among the most permissive in the Western world.
In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court invalidated Texas century-old abortion statute (which had allowed abortion only if a mothers life was threatened by continued pregnancy). When coupled with a companion holding in Doe v. Bolton (1973), decided the same day, the courts new jurisprudence allowed abortion at any time if a physician deemed it necessary to preserve a womans health, understood in light of all factors physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the womans age. This exception has largely unraveled any meaningful gestational limits enacted by state legislatures.
The principles underlying the courts decision also caused some to question whether a state could proscribe perinatal infanticide. Twelve years later, a Texas physician was sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering an infant girl by hysterectomy and then drowning her in a bucket of water. In the case of Showery v. State (1985), attorneys for the doctor argued that according to the logic of Roe an infant marked for abortion but born alive was a non-individual left unprotected by the states criminal prohibition against homicide.
Roes opponents soon focused their attention on what Hadley Arkes the primary architect of the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act (2002) called a modest first step: the legal protection of a child that was inadvertently born alive during an attempted abortion procedure. The effort to protect in federal law infants born alive had a broad pedagogical purpose. To say why the child bears an intrinsic dignity, Arkes later explained in his memoir, is to put in place the premises that would finally undercut, or dissolve, the right to abortion and all of the jurisprudence built upon that slogan.
The principles implicated by the Gosnell case make the trial and the static nature of public opinion significant news items. The significance, however, has been lost in a debate focused on the media rather than the weightier issues the case necessarily entails.
Justin Dyer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri in Columbia. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.