POSTED: Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 9:29am
UPDATED: Friday, May 24, 2013 - 4:55pm
(CNN) — The depraved acts Dr. Kermit Gosnell is accused of committing have sparked a new turn in the nationwide battle over abortion laws.
Groups that oppose legal abortion are using the horror surrounding his clinic, which has garnered fresh attention during his murder trial, to push for new state and federal restrictions -- even though Gosnell's alleged acts were already illegal.
In his Pennsylvania clinic, Gosnell allegedly severed the spinal cords of babies born alive in the sixth, seventh, and eighth months of their mothers' pregnancies while operating amid dangerous, deplorable conditions. A 41-year-old woman died allegedly due to an anesthetic overdose during a second-trimester abortion. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney cautioned against a "rush to judgment."
Eight people involved in the Women's Medical Society clinic have pleaded guilty to various charges, including four to murder. The grand jury report from 2011 says the "people who ran this sham medical practice included no doctors other than Gosnell himself, and not even a single nurse," yet they still made diagnoses, performed procedures and administered drugs.
Pennsylvania bans abortions after 24 weeks.
Ever since the grand jury report came out, gruesome descriptions of Gosnell's clinic have become fodder for anti-abortion groups.
"In the state level (the case) is really changing the policy debate," says Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List.
"It's giving an incredible amount of context to the debates that are happening in state legislatures, where representatives are pushing restrictions on clinics and also later-term bans."
Several states recently passed tough new laws, setting up new potential constitutional challenges to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that women have a right to abortion during the entirety of pregnancy.
North Dakota recently banned most abortions after six weeks, the most restrictive law in the country. Arkansas banned them at 12 weeks. Alabama drastically changed requirements for clinics to operate.
Quigley does not declare the Gosnell case centrally responsible for getting these laws passed. But state lawmakers who oppose legal abortion have brought Gosnell up in their arguments.
Asked whether the case is fueling these efforts and more ahead, Charmaine Yoest, president of the anti-abortion rights group Americans United for Life, replied, "certainly."
"This really is a landmark case," she adds.
New push for a federal ban
The Susan B. Anthony List is pushing for a law in Washington, D.C., restricting abortions after 20 weeks. And, Quigley says, the group is making a concerted push for federal laws, as well.
"While the nation's attention is turned to this issue, we do think that we need to start having a question about viability and more limits to abortion based on viability nationwide."
On its blog, the organization posted YouTube videos of 18 anti-abortion lawmakers speaking out on what some call Gosnell's "House of Horrors" and insisting that "action be taken."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently introduced a resolution calling for tougher abortion laws nationwide. In a statement, he called Gosnell "a wake-up call."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, objected to Lee's resolution and introduced his own that focuses on safety of all patients, not just on abortion. All "incidents of abusive, unsanitary, or illegal health care practices should be condemned and prevented, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Blumenthal argued.
Abortion rights groups: Bans lead to 'back-alley abortionists'
More restrictions on abortions will lead to more cases like the Women's Medical Society, not fewer, abortion rights advocates argue.
"The reason we want abortion to be legal and safe is so that women can go to legitimate abortion providers and we don't have to worry about these back-alley abortionists coming back," says Jennifer Arons, head of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.
"It was a very real and distressing reality for women before Roe v. Wade was decided. We thought we had said goodbye to back-alley abortionists," Arons said, comparing what happened at the Women's Medical Society to the notorious unlicensed abortion mills that women resorted to before Roe v. Wade. "And it's illegal under the law. That's what I think people are missing in the bigger picture."
Legal access to abortion helps counteract "predators" who "prey on vulnerable women," Arons said.
"It's not that we need more laws or stricter laws. Pennsylvania just didn't do its job in enforcing the laws against him earlier."
Anti-abortion rights groups are trying to turn that argument on its head. They blame the pro-abortion rights lobby for the lack of enforcement. And they have help from the Gosnell grand jury.
Grand jury: Politics led to inspections stopping
Pennsylvania's Department of Health has the responsibility of auditing facilities like the one Gosnell operated.
In 1993, the department stopped inspecting abortion clinics "for political reasons," according to the grand jury report.
"The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro," the report says. When Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican who supported abortion rights, took office, "officials concluded that inspections would be 'putting a barrier up to women' seeking abortions."
In interviews with CNN, both Quigley and Yoest pointed to that quote.
Ridge now leads the consulting and management group Ridge Global and the lobbying firm Ridge Policy Group. Spokespeople did not return CNN's requests for comment from the former governor.
Yoest, of Americans United for Life, says the Women's Medical Society case proves that tougher laws are needed.
Abortion rights activists have long battled against "common sense" regulations at clinics, Yoest argues. "The legacy of Kermit Gosnell is he's the logical conclusion of that."
But abortion rights groups deny pressuring against inspections. In fact, they say, they want the laws enforced.
"The whole idea of having legal access to abortion is to ensure that women have access to comprehensive reproductive health care in a way that is appropriate. So if a government needs to inspect clinics that's completely reasonable," says Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "That's a patient safety issue."
As a result of the discoveries about Gosnell's clinic, there was a bill in the state legislature to ensure inspections take place, Hoover said, "but that bill got hijacked by the other side -- and they forced new regulations on the clinics."
Clinic restrictions: "Common sense" or 'TRAP'?
The new regulations being pushed by groups opposed to legal abortion include demands that hallways at clinics be large enough to fit gurneys and that there be a minimum number of parking spaces outside.
Such ideas are "common sense," says Yoest, adding that it's "breathtaking" to think anyone would argue against them.
But supporters of legal abortions say the fight for clinic regulations is part of an effort to put clinics that offer abortions out of business altogether. Abortion rights activists call them "TRAP" laws -- targeted regulation of abortion providers.
"TRAP bills single out abortion providers for medically unnecessary, politically motivated state regulations" to "stigmatize and burden abortion providers" and "chip away at abortion access," the National Abortion Federation says on its website. Many of the regulations "are not medically justified... Clinics can be forced to extensively remodel and hire new staff or even close entirely, resulting in women having to travel great distances to obtain abortion care."
Yoest and Quigley did not answer when asked whether their groups' push for tougher regulations on clinics are part of a strategy to end legal abortion.
But written talking points provided by Americans United for Life state: "Using our model legislation and our hard-won expertise with abortion clinic regulations, we also intend to provoke future, strategic 'test cases' -- federal and state legal challenges to carefully crafted and selected state laws -- that will serve as vehicles to severely undermine Roe v. Wade and, ultimately, eradicate it from American law."
'Born alive' laws: Critical or extraneous?
Groups opposing legal abortion are also citing the Women's Medical Society case in the push for more states to have so-called "born alive" legislation outlawing the killing of viable babies born after attempted abortions.
"The horrific stories we are hearing from Philadelphia of Dr. Gosnell's 'House of Horrors' in which living children were butchered when they survived an attempted abortion illustrate why this legislation is so crucial," Yoest said in a statement after Florida's House of Representatives recently passed such a bill.
Killing a baby is already illegal. And President George W. Bush signed the "born alive" law in 2002 specifically outlawing the killing of babies born after attempted abortions.
Still, 28 states now have their own laws, as well, according to the nonpartisan politifact.com.
Quigley argues that the federal law had "really no teeth" because it did not ensure tough enough penalties.
But abortion rights activists say there's another strategy behind those efforts.
"I think this push for 'born alive' laws is really about the same thing that the campaign against 'partial birth abortion' was about -- to make people equate abortion with infanticide," Arons says.
"What they value more than anything is winning a messaging war," she says.
"The type of abortion where an infant would be delivered, those only happen in hospital settings and they're incredibly rare," Arons argues. "Normally if it's being performed it's because there's a health problem with the mother.
"This idea of an infant being born alive in the process of a botched abortion and people not making efforts to resuscitate -- I think that's a myth they like to propagate. It's just not something that really happens."
Anti-abortion rights groups say the Gosnell case serves as a reminder that it does happen.
"Unsuccessful late-term abortions" at the Philadelphia clinic, Quigley says, are causing the country "to revisit this entire idea."
Just how often this happens is unknown. As politifact.com notes, there's no national figure available.
Eighty-eight percent of abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and 1.5% take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive laws as part of its effort "to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights."
The anti-abortion group Live Action recently released three videos which the group says suggest workers at certain abortion clinics would be willing to kill babies born alive after botched abortions.
The group has been accused of heavily editing videos to make its point. Live Action founder and president Lila Rose dismisses the criticism, saying, "Our agenda is the truth here."
Missed chance for common ground
The irony is that, when it comes to the Women's Medical Society case, the two sides actually agree on central points.
Both say that what former employees have admitted happened was revolting. And that regulations must be in place and enforced to prevent anything similar from happening.
Despite the fever pitch of this political battle, the Gosnell case is really a chance for common ground -- something the grand jury report noted in 2011.
"Let us say right up front that we realize this case will be used by those on both sides of the abortion debate. We ourselves cover a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion. For us as a criminal grand jury, however, the case is not about that controversy; it is about disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants. We find common ground in exposing what happened here, and in recommending measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again."