What the Gosnell guilty verdict means for the future of abortion

Conservatives have sought to use the horrific case to press for more restrictive abortion laws

Kermit Gosnell's defense lawyer Jack McMahon
(Image credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose abortion clinic has been dubbed a "House of Horrors" for a slew of heinous practices, was found guilty on Monday of three counts of first-degree murder for killing fetuses who were still alive after being removed from their mothers' wombs.

All told, Gosnell was found guilty of 237 crimes relating to his grisly abortion practice. In addition to the murder charges, he was convicted of one count of involuntary manslaughter for the drug overdose death of a former patient.

The five-week trial revealed a trove of morbid details about Gosnell's clinic. He was accused of severing the spinal cords of fetuses and engaging in other dangerous, violent practices. (For a full rundown, read the grand jury report here.) Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty when the sentencing phase of the trial begins.

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Though the case itself is all but over now, the broader debate over abortion that it has spawned is far from finished. Social conservatives have held the case up as evidence that abortion is an immoral practice, and claimed that a vast liberal media conspiracy had hidden the case from the public.

Just minutes after the ruling, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) accused Democrats of opposing tougher safety standards for "abortion mills," and said the party "worship[ed] abortion with same fervor the Canaanites worshipped Molech."

"The courts call it murder. Democrats call it 'health care,'" he said. "Despite the blood-soaked horror of Gosnell's clinic, Democrats refuse to loosen their embrace of unrestricted, unregulated, taxpayer-funded abortion on demand."

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also weighed in soon after the verdict, saying in a post at Red State that it should be a "wakeup call" for Republicans to take action on abortion. "How many other Gosnells are out there?" he asked.

Now is the time to step up and act. There will likely be abortion advocates who denounce these leaders. These are the voices that reject any talk of regulating abortion, but they have no ground to stand on here. There is no defending Kermit Gosnell or the broken system that enabled him. [Red State]

Conservatives had also raised a fuss over the lack of media coverage devoted to the trial's early proceedings, claiming that reporters were deliberately ignoring the trial for fear it would erode abortion laws they support. Priebus echoed that sentiment Monday, saying, "There seems to be an unwillingness to cover a story that could bring into question whether the nation’s abortion laws are strong enough and fully enforced."

Already, there has been a movement at the state level to further restrict abortion access. North Dakota recently banned almost all abortions after six weeks, the most restrictive such law in the nation. Though the Gosnell trial has not played a significant role in those efforts, a spokesperson for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List said the case was still "changing the policy debate" at the state level.

"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," spokeswoman Mallory Quigley said.

At the federal level, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a resolution calling on the Senate to review abortion laws. Like Priebus, he called the Gosnell case a "wake-up call," adding, "The lack of oversight at abortion facilities puts women’s lives at risk and leads to the kind of unconscionable practices we have seen recently."

For their part, abortion rights supporters have blasted Gosnell's actions, while arguing that the trial is a reminder of why women should have access to safe, sanitary medical care. In a statement, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said the trial was "a peek into the world before Roe v. Wade," and warned against allowing the emotional case to serve as a flashpoint for rolling back women's rights.

"Anti-choice politicians, and their unrelenting efforts to deny women access to safe and legal abortion care, will only drive more women to back-alley butchers like Kermit Gosnell," she said.

Planned Parenthood struck a similar note, saying the jury had "rightfully convicted" Gosnell, while warning against the prospect of a regressive political fallout.

"This case has made clear that we must have and enforce laws that protect access to safe and legal abortion, and we must reject misguided laws that would limit women's options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell," Planned Parenthood said in a statement.

Public opinion, it seems, is currently on their side. A Gallup poll released last week found that the trial hadn't shifted Americans' view on abortion at all.

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