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  • Paul Stark

Kermit Gosnell's lethal challenge to pro-choice logic

In Kermit Gosnell's Philadelphia abortion facility, dubbed a "house of horrors" by investigators, patients were treated by untrained staff using infected instruments, severed baby feet were collected in jars, infant corpses were stored in the fridge alongside lunches, and multiple women died.

Even more outrageous? Gosnell delivered hundreds of babies alive and then killed them by "snipping" their necks. He was convicted of first-degree murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison in 2013.

The film Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer tells the true story of the investigation and trial. In one revealing courtroom scene, Gosnell's attorney cross-examines a late-term abortion practitioner who, unlike Gosnell, operates according to the rules.

This law-abiding doctor explains how she performs abortions: a lethal injection followed by dismemberment and removal of the body piece by piece—or, when the unborn child is larger, removal of the body intact after sucking out the brain to collapse the skull. If the child were (hypothetically) born alive, she says, she would provide "comfort care" and wait for the baby to die.

Are these legal, ordinary abortion procedures any better than Gosnell's approach of severing the spinal cord after delivery? That seemed to be the defense attorney's question to the jury.

It should also be directed to every pro-choice person.

The conventional pro-choice position holds that killing a young member of our species is morally permissible in utero but not ex utero. The challenge posed by the case of Kermit Gosnell (who, interestingly, describes himself as an adherent of "situational ethics," a theory founded by infanticide advocate Joseph Fletcher) is whether there's actually a morally significant difference.

Could the relevant difference simply be the location of the human being? No. Where someone is clearly has no bearing on what she is or whether she matters. A trip through the birth canal—like a trip across the border from Minnesota into Wisconsin—doesn't change an individual into something else.

Could bodily autonomy account for the difference? Maybe a woman has a right to do what she wants with anything inside her own body. But autonomy, though important, must still respect the rights of others. "Mere ownership," writes pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren, "does not give me the right to kill innocent people whom I find on my property." And so it is with pregnancy.

Most people don't think pregnant women should use their autonomy to ingest drugs that cause birth defects. And if harming an unborn child is wrong, killing her by crushing and tearing her into pieces is even worse.

Could the developmental stage of the child be the difference? Maybe those killed while still in the womb haven't yet acquired characteristics that make them "persons" with a right to life.

But developmental stage doesn't always correlate with birth. Some of the babies Gosnell delivered alive and then killed are younger than other babies legally killed in utero. How can we shudder at the acts of Gosnell while authorizing the destruction of those older children?

In any case, though, development doesn't determine whether someone has a right to life. Older people are not more valuable than younger people. Smaller people don't have a lesser right to exist than bigger people. Teenagers, with their superior mental and physical ability, don't matter more than toddlers.

Some people point to a child's "non-viability" (the inability to survive apart from her mother) as a reason to think that she may be killed. But some conjoined twins are "non-viable" apart from the body of the other—and that doesn't mean we may kill them. Dependence doesn't diminish a person's worth. And independence doesn't somehow confer human rights.

So what is the difference? Gosnell's killings were a grave injustice. Why isn't abortion also a grave injustice? What's the difference?

Many pro-choice thinkers acknowledge that there's no substantial moral difference. "The pro-life groups are right about one thing: the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial moral difference," write Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse. "We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive."

The two ethicists add: "The solution, however, is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus ... [has] the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite: to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth."

Singer, Kuhse, and a number of other prominent pro-choice moral philosophers believe infanticide, like abortion, can be appropriate. They don't think that Gosnell's newborn victims count as "persons" who have human rights.

Almost everyone else knows better. The solution to the challenge of Kermit Gosnell is not to abandon human equality. The solution is to fully embrace it.

Every child deserves better than that facility in Philadelphia. Every child deserves better than abortion.

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