What We Should Learn from the Gosnell Trial

By Becky Guldin, President’s Assistant Intern

Kermit Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter on May 13. Gosnell, who had no training in obstetrics or gynecology, had been running a back alley abortion scheme in West Philadelphia where he performed late-term abortions in abysmally dangerous and unsanitary conditions. The clinic was raided on a tip that it had been producing illegal prescriptions; instead investigators found what they later deemed a “house of horrors.”

There is no disputing that Gosnell’s crimes are monstrous. However, after watching such atrocities unfold for weeks, it becomes clear that this trial is a much needed reminder of the need for affordable, safe, and legal access to abortion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, unintended pregnancy is a public health epidemic in the United States. By the age of 45, over half of American women will have experienced an unintended pregnancy. Every year, approximately 38% of pregnancies are unplanned, and four out of ten will be terminated. The rates of unintended pregnancy in the United States are substantially higher than many developed countries.

In a post-Roe v. Wade United States, women have access to services that allow them to control their bodies — that is, in theory. In practice, that access is often limited or nonexistent. The rate of unintended pregnancies is highest among low income and poor women, ages 18-24, and as a result, this demographic also has high rates of unplanned births and abortions. Women of color are also more likely to endure an unplanned pregnancy. Gosnell targeted women in these situations, often luring them with a lower price than that charged by legitimate providers.

87% of counties in the United States do not have even one surgical abortion provider and 35% of women reside in those counties according to Guttmacher. In some states, reproductive rights have faced extreme opposition, and the clinics are few and far between. North Dakota, South Dakota, Mississippi and Arkansas, for example, each have one lone clinic left. Extremely limited — or no — access to abortions forces women to resort to desperate measures. Let’s face it — Gosnell’s practice was able to flourish because of limited access to abortion in the system.

When women do not have access to abortion services, it allows predators like Gosnell to prey on vulnerable people. These limited choices are facilitated by anti-choice legislation. In 2012, 42 anti-choice laws were passed at the state level. Some of is legislation includes: eliminating insurance coverage for abortions, slashing funding for agencies like Planned Parenthood, banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, forcing providers to deceive their patients by requiring them to give misinformation about abortion services, and imposing unnecessary waiting periods upon women before having the procedure.

Kermit Gosnell’s actions are entirely abominable — under no circumstances should women be subjected to such practices. While the actions of this back alley butcher are horrifying, anti-abortion supporters have been using his crimes as justification for wiping out access to abortion in the United States completely. But criminalizing abortion is exactly what gives rise to predators like Gosnell. This serves as a dire call to action for legislators — women need access to safe and legal abortion care lest they turn, in desperation, to the back alley.

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