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Doctor's Murder Conviction Likely To Inflame Abortion Debate


Now, the murder conviction of Kermit Gosnell is likely to bring more sparks to the already heated abortion debate in Washington and across the nation. Those on both sides of the divide have been gearing up for what comes next. Here's NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The irony of this case is that those on both sides of the debate were hoping for a conviction. That's because what Kermit Gosnell means to the abortion debate really comes down to this: Was he an outlier, or are there more abortion providers like him who just haven't been discovered yet? Abortion rights backers insist he's an exception.

Jodi Jacobson runs RH Reality Check, an online daily news service about reproductive rights and sexual politics.

JODI JACOBSON: The fact is that what he did was illegal - unethical, unscrupulous, illegal, and it bears no comparison to safe abortion care or even late-abortion care, because he performed abortions post-viability on women without indications for such. So they were illegal.

ROVNER: Jacobson says most states have laws that bar abortions late in pregnancy, except when there are medical reasons.

JACOBSON: If you have a late abortion situation in the third trimester, you are facing either a threat to the life or the health of the mother, or a fetus with anomalies incompatible with life.

ROVNER: But abortion opponents say Gosnell is anything but an exception. Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: The tentacles of this type of approach to abortion are all over the country. He is not an outlier. I mean, really, you just have to look - do a Google search, and you'll find, in the last several months, many other examples.

ROVNER: But whether or not there are more doctors like Gosnell, anti-abortion forces say they'll try to harness the public outrage created by this trial to further their cause. Republicans on Capitol Hill have already asked state public health officials and attorneys general for details on their efforts to regulate abortion providers and protect newborn infants.

Meanwhile, Dannenfelser says she hopes the case will help efforts to pass legislation to ban abortions after a certain point in pregnancy.

DANNENFELSER: So the question would be: Is there a point where the civil right of the unborn child comes into play? And there is a solid majority that says that late in pregnancy, that point exists. You know, anywhere from 18 to 20 weeks, there is a good 60, 70, 80 percent support for that type of measure.

ROVNER: Eighteen and 20 weeks both being well before viability, and thus challenging the current Supreme Court holding for when abortion should be generally legal. Abortion rights groups, meanwhile, are using the Gosnell case, too. They're making the case that as abortion becomes more and more restricted, women will have fewer and fewer options and will end up turning to sketchier providers like Gosnell.

Nancy Northup is president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

NANCY NORTHUP: He was acting wholly outside the law, and the fact that that is the case really suggests the reason why we need to make sure that we have good providers, that abortion has to be safe and legal and accessible.

ROVNER: One thing is clear coming out of the Gosnell case: It is likely to once again shift the emphasis of the abortion debate. Until recently, it's been on birth control, where abortion rights groups enjoy broader public support. Now it's likely to swing back to later abortions, where abortion opponents have the public opinion edge. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.