Michael Smerconish: Roe v. Wade here for a reason

The national media descended on the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia last week, shamed into covering the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell by a misplaced sense of obligation. That arrival was compelled by a newspaper column written in USA Today by Kirsten Powers, who insinuated that the case was being ignored because of bias.

“Let me state the obvious,” Powers wrote. “This should be front-page news. When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, there was nonstop media hysteria. The venerable NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams intoned, ‘A firestorm of outrage from women after a crude tirade from Rush Limbaugh,’ as he teased a segment on the brouhaha. Yet, accusations of babies having their heads severed – a major human-rights story if there ever was one – doesn’t make the cut.

“You don’t have to oppose abortion rights to find late-term abortion abhorrent or to find the Gosnell trial eminently newsworthy. This is not about being ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life.’ It’s about basic human rights.”

You’d think the city’s Tourism Marketing Corp. sponsored her words. New faces came to town. And those who had already been paying attention felt obliged to state that fact. When Jake Tapper interviewed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Joseph Slobodzian on CNN, Tapper was quick to point out that he had first covered the case in March. The Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger recently said that she’d first opined on the case two years ago for Politics Daily. The popular website newser.com noted it had run a story the day after the trial opened March 18. (I devoted a column to Gosnell, who is charged with killing one woman and seven infants, in January 2011.)

But no sense of guilt is warranted. There is no causal connection between coverage of this case and bias. To the extent the trial was being ignored, the oblivion extended to both ends of the political spectrum and was probably more attributable to the grisly evidence than anything else.

There’s only so much information anyone can take about bloodstained blankets, fetuses in jars and the cutting of infant spinal cords. Slobodzian reported last week that Medical Examiner Sam Gulino testified about examining 47 fetuses found in a refrigerator at Gosnell’s clinic. (Gosnell was disputing charges by his medical waste-disposal firm. The defense alleges he froze the remains and other medical waste awaiting a resolution that never happened.)

Powers’ argument that coverage of the case is anathema to a pro-choice agenda is illogical. Gosnell is being prosecuted for violating, not adhering to, the laws regarding pregnancy termination. Any media avoiding the case for what it represents must have a deep-seated bias in favor of bureaucratic ineptitude, because beyond the alleged criminal conduct, that is what the case is about: the blind eye turned toward the atrocities committed at a West Philadelphia clinic by those charged with regulating same. The facility should have been shut long ago.

Gosnell isn’t indicative of what occurs when abortion is legal; he is a walking warning for what might come if Roe v. Wade is overturned or whittled away slowly by the states. Every week, it seems, another state takes measures to limit abortion rights, which are the law of the land. Consider what has occurred in just the last two months.

The Washington Post recently detailed how, in the last six weeks, four states – Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota – have adopted some of the most stringent restrictions on abortion in the nation. Alabama seeks to require that abortion providers have privileges at local hospitals. Arkansas is attempting to ban abortions after the first trimester (about three months short of the Roe v. Wade viability standard). North Dakota is even more restrictive, prohibiting abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected. Not to be outdone, the Kansas Legislature just said life begins at fertilization.

And last week, the Virginia Board of Health voted to require hospital-like building codes of clinics that some fear will put them out of business. A female supporter of those measures was heard to say, “We need to be assured that a Kermit Gosnell-type practitioner is not operating in Virginia.”

Perhaps she should be careful what she wishes for. If Virginia and the other states that seek to put abortion providers out of business are successful, will we be left with fewer or more Gosnell-like facilities? After all, he stands accused of ignoring the law and conducting himself without regard for state interference. What does that hark back to?

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com.Editor’s note: Trudy Rubin will be back next week.

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