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James Taranto’s Anti-Choice Trooferism

[ 87 ] April 24, 2013 |

James Taranto makes an argument that has become increasingly common as opponents of legal abortion try the essentially impossible task of making supporters of legal abortion responsible for Kermit Gosnell’s illegal abortion clinic.   His strategy is to try to make the disgraceful regulatory neglect shown by the state of Pennsylvania a product of pressure from the pro-choice movement and excessive commitment to reproductive freedom:

In 1994 Tom Ridge, a pro-abortion Republican, was elected governor, succeeding the antiabortion Democrat Bob Casey. According to the grand jury, Ridge administration officials “concluded that inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up to women’ seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased.” The new policy did away with all regular inspections of abortion clinics.

As Taranto interprets the grand jury’s findings, the nominally pro-choice Republican government of Pennsylvania ended any regular inspection of abortion clinics for ideological reasons. How credible is this interpretation?

The answer is: not the slightest bit. The basis for Taranto’s assumptions about the motives of the Ridge administration would appear to be a single bare assertion to the grand jury by Janice Staloski, a director in the Pennsylvania Department of Health whose negligence was a major factor in the Gosnell clinic remaining opens. (Staloski did not order a single inspection of the Gosnell clinic despite repeated public complaints, including those from pro-choice groups.) Taranto believes that the uncorroborated and transparently self-serving justifications of demonstrably incompetent bureaucrats should be taken at face value, at least when they’re convenient for his a priori ideological position. The rest of us, however, may wish to treat these statements with a little more skepticism.

First of all, was it the position of pro-choice groups in Pennsylvania that abortion clinics should not be inspected for any reason? Far from it. Indeed, according to the grand jury report “[a]bortion rights advocates told us…that licensing abortion clinics as [ambulatory surgical facilities] would not be burdensome because clinics that are members of NAF, or associated with Planned Parenthood, already comply with the highest standards of care.” As the report emphasizes, the National Abortion Federation performs rigorous inspections of abortion clinics, and pace Taranto the NAF’s standards are “in many ways, more protective of women’s safety than are the state’s regulations.” Gosnell applied for NAF certification, and although the NAF inspectors did not even see the worst of his abuses was rejected.  Pro-choice groups simply don’t oppose the application of general health regulations to clinics where abortions are performed, although they certainly do oppose fraudulent “health” regulations intended to shut down safe abortion clinics.

The argument that Pennsylvania’s regulatory failures were the result of pressure from pro-choice groups goes from implausible to farcical when you consider the politics of abortion in Pennsylvania. Oddly, the allegedly omnipotent pro-choice groups who were able to force hapless administrators in successive administrations to refuse to inspect clinics (although no actually existing pro-choice group believes that abortion clinics shouldn’t be subject to rigorous health and safety standards) have been consistently routed in state politics. Pennsylvania, as I noted last week, has abortion regulations that are among the stiffest in the country, suggesting that the authorities in Pennsylvania are very capable of resisting actual pressure from pro-choice groups. It seems rather unlikely, then, that they would see themselves as having no choice but to submit to imaginary pressure from pro-choice groups.

The actual explanation is much simpler. The key problem is not that the Ridge administration was (nominally) pro-choice, but that it was Republican. The fact that Gosnell was allowed to continue to butcher women in spite of repeated complaints is what happens when a party committed to not enforcing safety regulations (especially if doing so might clash with powerful interests such as insurance companies) comes into power. The proper comparison to Ridge’s Department of Health is George W. Bush’s FEMA. The Ridge government brought the same kind of lack of regulatory oversight national Republicans have long sought to bring to all health and safety issues.

There is a bigger problem with the argument. Given the horrors of Gosnell’s clinic, why on earth would it be desirable to return to an era in which clinics like Gosnell’s were the only option? Taranto has an answer — of remarkable disingenuousness:

The grand jury’s report should also be seen as an indictment of America’s post-Roe abortion industry. Its indifference—at best—to legal limits made possible the deaths of untold numbers of babies, lending credence to the argument that legal abortion is a slippery slope to infanticide.

Meanwhile, the claim that Roe v. Wade made America safe from back-alley abortion stands exposed as a cruel hoax, and a deadly one for women and children alike.

This is all nonsense. What makes the Gosnell case so striking is precisely that it’s an outlier. In the post-Roe era abortion has become an extremely safe medical procedure, safer than childbirth. There’s no slippery slope, just the simple fact that abortion doctors (like any other kind of medical professional or business) are liable to threaten public safety when they are not subjected to basic regulatory oversight. The idea that because Roe v. Wade has not (because it cannot) entirely eliminated unethical practitioners we should therefore go back to an era in which all non-affluent women were compelled to seek abortions on entirely unregulated black markets is utterly absurd.

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  1. rea says:

    And you know, the change was not that they ended inspections. The change was that they ended regular inspections, and went instead to a system of inspecting upon complaint. There were plenty of complaints, including some by prochoice groups.

    Note also that the most lurid complaints–killing babies born alive–have been dismissed for lack of evidence.

    • Avattoir says:

      This is aside from the post’s larger point, but: I’m getting the distinct impression that there are huge, truck-trailer-convoy-sized evidence holes in the prosecution’s case against Goswell.

      If so (Bear with me: I’m rolling.), then this is looking a lot like Zealots Ride Again, the agents like Taranto creating a narrative off the Grand Jury report (Always a risky business.), maybe (Maybe; again: I’m rolling.) because someone or ones in Team Prosecution recognized the extreme iffiness of their case for conviction and determined to give it a little extrajudicial boost.

      For any lawyers here: Not as if this’d be the first time, yes no?

    • Sebastian H says:

      The reports I read from the NYT make it sound like the prosecution had trouble showing the babies were born alive (through testimony of breathing or movement). I support the legal systems requirements on a beyond reasonable doubt standard, but that doesn’t mean that from a commentary perspective there is any question that he severed the spinal cords of these babies with scissors, and from a logical perspective there isn’t much reason to do so if they aren’t alive.

      There is also no dispute about the fact that the babies were viable. So you’re being a bit broad brushed about the most lurid complaints–especially since there appear to be four remaining.

      He definitely aborted viable babies and escapes the consequences of those killing only on statute of limitations grounds.

      That calls into serious question pro-choice rhetoric about the lack of need to have specific regulations monitoring abortion clinics or else they will abort babies that could live. The rhetoric is always–no woman would seek a late term abortion unless it was medically necessary. But Gosnell proves that there were hundreds of such abortions by a single doctor in a single clinic in Pennsylvania, which is allegedly a ‘scary’ pro life state despite having much more pro choice standards than much of Europe. And since this medical procedure intentionally terminates a human life if done after viability, pretty much anyone other than a pro-choice fundamentalist understands that will require more scrutiny than a p,ace that removes warts.

      The problem is that historically pro-choice advocates try to couch such regulations as frivolously interfering with the right to choose. That kind of rhetoric can’t easily survive contact with the Gosnell case.

      • sharculese says:

        The rhetoric is always–no woman would seek a late term abortion unless it was medically necessary.

        We’ve been over all the explanations for this that don’t have to do with women being flighty sluts (many of them involve Pennsylvania being anti-choice) and yet they never seem to make a dent in your fever dream version of the ‘abortion industry.’

      • Hogan says:

        At least we’ve moved on from “NARAL made Ridge do it” to a more vaporous “pro-choice rhetoric” argument. That way we don’t have to look at anything any actual pro-choice person or group said or did.

      • witless chum says:

        Citation fucking needed for pretty much all of that, but the regulations that pro choicers complain about are typically things like the current effort in Virgina to require that all abortion clinics have hallways five feet wide, like major hospitals. The anti-legal abortion crowd has a long history of using regulations simply to harass clinics out of business, just like they use the right to free assembly as their figleaf to hide behind while they pile on to try to terrorize women who are already in a situation they didn’t want to be in.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        which is allegedly a ‘scary’ pro life state despite having much more pro choice standards than much of Europe.

        No, it doesn’t. We’ve been through this.

        Also: 1)Please to be citing evidence that medically unnecessary post-viability abortions are a problem in, say, Canada. 2)Please explain how alleged problems with post-viability abortions justify regulations that don’t just apply at every stage of pregnancy but make pre-viability abortions harder to obtain.

        • Sebastian H says:

          You’re asking me for a cite, when we are talking about the Gosnell case already. Do you believe he performed these abortions on himself? That he grew the fetuses in a vat and then severed their spines with scissors? He is a medical genius that has discovered fully independent fetal development processes!?! You claim to want further information, yet you don’t want to deal with the information clearly at hand.

          As for any viability regulations, you at the very least have to have regulations measuring viability, or you can’t tell which rules you should be using.

          • sharculese says:

            Holy goal-post shifting, Batman!

          • As for any viability regulations, you at the very least have to have regulations measuring viability

            Supposing you have regulations, I guess you want to define your terms. Or you could just not have those regulations.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            You’re asking me for a cite, when we are talking about the Gosnell case already.

            Except that it just isn’t evidence that women obtaining medically unnecessary post-viability abortions is any kind of real problem. We don’t know how many of the abortions were medically necessary, and even more importantly Gosnell was an extremely unethical practitioner. If this is a problem, it should actually show up in cases where post-viability abortions aren’t heavily regulated. The fact that there is no such evidence is a major problem for your argument.

            I also note that you’re unwilling to defend the assertion that abortion is more accessible in Pennsylvania than in France, or to defend most of Pennsylvania’s actually existing abortion regulations on the merits.

            • Sebastian H says:

              Gosnell is an unethical practitioner who had as a major dimension of his low ethics the fact that he was willing to abort viable babies. Those viable-outside-of-the-womb babies did not walk to his clinic. He did not to my knowledge kidnap them from their mothers in order to perform abortions.

              And he who asks for cites is awfully lawyerly about the medical necessity of the Gosnell abortions. So far as the evidence shows, none of them were medically necessary. Lots of fully viable babies dead, zero evidence of medical necessity. Hell, Gosnell’s clinic was so bad I’m not sure how he would tell.

              I’m perfectly willing to defend the notion that second and third trimester abortions are easier to get in Pennsylvannia as they are incredibly difficult to get in France after week twelve. As for in general, the Pennsylvannia rate is about 17 per 1000 of childbearing age (according to Guttmacher 2008), while the French rate is about 16.9 as of the latest UN data I could find(2007). So considering the fact that overall rates are similar, and the ability to get second trimester abortions is much easier in Pennsylvannia…

              I don’t blame you for the mistake, btw. The window in the US is so far tilted toward the pro-choice side that even what passes for ‘scary’ restrictions in the US end up being much more permissive than much of Europe. This can be seen by rhetoric about Casey v Planned Parenthood. The Pennsylvannia laws were nearly all upheld, and none of them are as restrictive as commonly found in Europe, but Casey is painted as a scary anti choice ruling.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                ]

                So far as the evidence shows, none of them were medically necessary.

                And, so far as the evidence shows, none of them weren’t medically necessary, so the evidence for your assumption remains zilch.

                I’m perfectly willing to defend the notion that second and third trimester abortions are easier to get in Pennsylvannia as they are incredibly difficult to get in France after week twelve.

                1)First of all, again, you’re focusing solely on one element of the law while ignoring the many other aspects of French abortion policy that makes abortions easier to obtain.

                2)I have no idea what the basis for your assumption that it’s harder to get an abortion after 12 weeks in France is. The fact that you need doctors to agree is not, in itself, dispositive, if doctors generally agree that requested abortions are medically necessary. (And, in general, if the procedure was improved it would be much easier for an non-affluent woman in France to obtain a safe abortion.) Anyone who knows anything abortion abortion law should know that you can’t just look at the statute books to determine the availability of abortion on the ground. There were states pre-Roe in which abortion was formally illegal in almost all circumstances but large numbers of safe abortions were performed in hospitals.

                So considering the fact that overall rates are similar, and the ability to get second trimester abortions is much easier in Pennsylvannia…

                To be meaningful, you at least need abortion rates compared to total pregnancies.


                I don’t blame you for the mistake, btw.

                I’m not the one making the mistake here, sorry. Again, I’d be happy to accept “draconian” European restrictions if they came with the full package, which would include abortions covered by Medicaid and generally available at public hospitals. And doctors making decisions about medical necessity without constant harassment from lobbies who want to use regulations as a pretext to stop all abortions.

                • Sebastian H says:

                  Well at least we agree on one thing, I too would rather have the whole French system then the horrible state of absorption rules and practices than we have now. I just don’t see a plausible path from here to there.

                • Sebastian H says:

                  First I want to note that I gave you exactly the statistic you asked for and then you didn’t like the answer.

                  Now I’ve found that the PA birth rate per 1000 is 12.0 (2006) while the French rate is 13.0 (2012). Those were the most recent comparable stats I could find.

                  I’ve now looked up the stats you requested twice. Neither time did they come out the way you would have predicted. So it looks like either the French are more restrictive in practice than you think, or Pennsylvania isn’t particularly restrictive on a practical level comparatively. I tend to think it is both actually.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  It’s not that I don’t “like” the answer. My point is that abortion rates are affected by a wide variety of factors, not least the effect that carrying a pregnancy to term will have on the mother’s life. Abortion rates in the United States and France are higher than in Canada and much higher than in the Netherlands — are you seriously arguing that the latter two must therefore have more restrictive abortion policies?

              • mds says:

                I don’t blame you for the mistake, btw.

                Sorry, rea, but you just can’t sell me on your assertion about Sebastian H arguing in good faith. Because according to my calculations, that sentence was when the Chandrasekhar limit was surpassed, and the entire comment collapsed into a furiously spinning asshole.

              • sibusisodan says:

                I’m perfectly willing to defend the notion that second and third trimester abortions are easier to get in Pennsylvannia…So considering the fact that overall rates are similar, and the ability to get second trimester abortions is much easier in Pennsylvannia…

                Have you just defended the idea that second trimester abortions are easier to get in PA than in France by assuming that second-trimester abortions are easier to get in PA than in France?

                I believe you have. Well played, sir. I look forward to the full panoply of logical fallacies in the near future.

      • And yet this nematode still can’t explain why the risk of death here requires a higher level of scrutiny than (just to pick one of a zillion examples) that which is required for an endoscopy clinic.

      • Shakezula says:

        Why aren’t nurses subject to round the clock oversight??

        A former intensive care nurse at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville has agreed to plead guilty to five counts of neglect in connection with the deaths of five of her patients in 2002 and 2003, according to documents filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

      • cpinva says:

        “He definitely aborted viable babies and escapes the consequences of those killing only on statute of limitations grounds.”

        there is no statute of limitations on murder, anywhere in the US, at either the state or federal level, so this is utter bullshit.

        • Sebastian H says:

          You need to read the grand jury report under the infanticide charges and then get back to me.

          • rea says:

            And those were exactly the charges subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence.

            • Sebastian H says:

              No they weren’t before the court at all because of the statute of limitations.

              The four counts that remain are around because we have eyewitness testimony that the four babies moved or breathed outside of the womb, while with the other three we have ‘only’ the evidence of a viable but dead baby with its spinal cord strangely cut through, but the prosecution can’t prove that the baby was outside the womb at the time (and the statute time limit on killing viable babies in the womb has expired).

              I’m sure that is great for Gosnell, but it doesn’t effect the underlying problems revealed by the case.

              And why the statute of limitations should be so short for ‘aborting’ a viable fetus is another can of worms I’m sure the pro choice politicians won’t be excited to talk about.

      • Murc says:

        He definitely aborted viable babies and escapes the consequences of those killing only on statute of limitations grounds.

        Jesus H. Christ.

        You cannot abort a baby! It’s medically impossible! Once you have a baby, abortion is no longer possible.

      • ema says:

        [T]here is any question that he severed the spinal cords of these babies with scissors, and from a logical perspective there isn’t much reason to do so if they aren’t alive.

        Severing the cord of neonates with scissors is not an actual procedure. Also, the scissors that come in a termination set would be inadequate. Link to trial transcript or it didn’t happen.

        As to logical perspective, no, not so much. Try familiarizing yourself with the procedure/instruments/protocol/indications if you strive for an informed guess.

        There is also no dispute about the fact that the babies were viable.

        Sure there is. If you have the evidence, produce it.

        That calls into serious question pro-choice rhetoric about the lack of need to have specific regulations monitoring abortion clinics or else they will abort babies that could live.

        You mean some people’s fantasy interpretations of what happened at one clinic calls into question other people’s imaginary rhetoric?

        The rhetoric is always–no woman would seek a late term abortion unless it was medically necessary.

        The voices in your head are misinforming you. The rhetoric is always – competent people, even if they are female, should be allowed to make their own medical decisions.

        But Gosnell proves that there were hundreds of such abortions by a single doctor in a single clinic in Pennsylvania….

        Why are you not getting in touch with the prosecution and providing them with all this evidence you have?

        And since this medical procedure intentionally terminates a human life if done after viability, pretty much anyone other than a pro-choice fundamentalist understands that will require more scrutiny than a p,ace that removes warts.

        Nonsense, it intentionally terminates a plant life. Have you ever seen or heard of a term pregnancy/delivery resulting in a plant? I rest my case.

        On a serious note, you don’t seem to have an understanding of pregnancy, termination, viability. Maybe before discussing regulations you should familiarize yourself with the basics.

        • Sebastian H says:

          On a serious note you clearly didn’t read the evidence in the grand jury repot. It is easily accessible online, why don’t you just read it instead of pretending I’m making things up. You’ll note even Scott doesn’t dispute the facts, he just argues that they don’t mean anything important.

          • DocAmazing says:

            Something is stopping you from linking? Something is stopping you from copying and pasting?

            Assertions-evidence=zero.

          • ema says:

            [Y]ou clearly didn’t read the evidence in the grand jury repot. It is easily accessible online, why don’t you just read it instead of pretending I’m making things up.

            According to the ME and the trial judge the jury report allegations are not accurate. Since none of us have access to the actual medical records, the best we can do, in terms of evidence, is the trial transcript.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    This is akin to, “Well, since that guy just passed me going 70mph in a 65mph zone, and the police didn’t stop him, we need to eliminate ALL speed limits.”

    Like Scott just did, Taranto needs to be openly mocked every time he opines.

    Open mockery may be an even better disinfectant, than sunshine.

  3. Brandon says:

    Gosnell means we need to go back to the pre-Roe days, but Lanza and Loughner and every other killer with a gun says nothing about the Law-Abiding Citizens. Funny, that.

  4. sharculese says:

    Anti-choicers have a delusional faith in the power and extent of the so-called ‘abortion lobby’. I used to have a roommate who was absolutely convinced that Planned Parenthood was a multi-billion dollar industry. You could walk him through why this was obviously not true, and he would accept it, and the next day it was totally forgotten.

    They’re desperate to be David fighting Goliath, and they’ll go to any length to convince you that they are.

  5. mpowell says:

    Thanks for researching this. This talking point was actually passed around much earlier and I was wondering where it came from or how much validity it had. Not much, it would seem.

  6. Shakezula says:

    Right, the pro-choice groups were able to get a state to take the unprecedented step of banning inspections of medical facilities and no other medical groups rushed up to claim that they too should be exempt from pesky restrictions.

  7. Brandon says:

    Haha, I still get a kick out of all of the whining from conservatives that the “liberal media” isn’t covering this, even though they covered it first and the right-wing media’s coverage is almost entirely just whining about the supposed non-coverage by others.

  8. Jules McWyrm says:

    …entirely regulated black markets…

    What’s the etiquette here? I don’t care to be an internet pedant and it’s clear what SL intended but OTOH if I posted something w/ this sort of typo I’d like it to be corrected. What’s the proper strategy?

  9. The key problem is not that the Ridge administration was (nominally) pro-choice, but that it was Republican.

    This is, indeed, the key problem for Republicans in general.

  10. sharculese says:

    Meanwhile, the claim that Roe v. Wade made America safe from back-alley abortion stands exposed as a cruel hoax, and a deadly one for women and children alike.

    There were literally zero SCOTUS cases between Roe and now that might have changed things. I can’t think of any.

  11. Bitter Scribe says:

    Interesting how conservatives are all about regulation and inspection for abortion clinics, but fertilizer plants next door to schools and homes, not so much.

  12. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    Here in Oklahoma, a Tulsa dentist was recently discovered to have followed utterly inadequate equipment sterilization procedures at his clinic, leading thousands of his patients to have to be tested for HIV and hepatitis B…and at least 60 of them have tested positive.

    Oddly, nobody is suggesting that this dentist’s behavior proves that supporters of dental hygeine are evil and nobody is calling for the outlawing of dentistry.

    • It’s Oklahoma. Give them time.

    • Shakezula says:

      Hepatitis outbreaks (if you’re lucky*) are just the free markets at work.

      A Nevada jury ordered the state’s largest health management organization on Tuesday to pay $500 million in punitive damages to three plaintiffs in a civil negligence lawsuit stemming from a Las Vegas hepatitis outbreak.

      Two companies — both subsidiaries of publicly traded UnitedHealth Group Inc. — signed a low-bid contract with the physician who ran the clinic where the outbreak started, despite warnings that he sped through procedures and pinched pennies at his clinics so much that patients were at risk of contracting blood-borne diseases, attorneys for those suing the companies argued.

      Here “penny pinching” involved shit like reusing needles, which is just plain insane.

      And people should take better care of their hearts if they don’t want to run the risk a drug addict will share his Hep. C with them.

      Don’t want to get a fatal case of meningitis caused by contaminated drugs? Don’t hurt your back, loser!

      I could go on and on and on and on but I think you get the idea: “Abortion leads to severe illness/injury/DEATH, so we should ban it” is the radioactive mutant jackelope of anti-choice arguments. I hope they keep at it.

      *Considering there are reputedly a few cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease caused by improperly sterilized surgical equipment.

      • cpinva says:

        didn’t nevada have “tort reform”, legislatively maximizing the amount a dr could be forced to pay, as the consequence of malpractice? in va, i believe it’s something like $350,000, because, otherwise, every dr in the state would up and leave. or so the republican party has told us.

        the problem with capping malpractice awards (and doing nearly nothing about actual incompetent dr’s) is that it creates little incentive to clean up the ranks.

  13. Murc says:

    In 1994 Tom Ridge, a pro-abortion Republican

    You could have stopped reading right there.

    That was a lie, and an egregious one. If Taranto were to utter this to Tom Ridge’s face, he’d be asked to step outside. It meant that, even if for some reason you took James Taranto in general seriously, you could stop taking that column seriously.

    • cpinva says:

      let’s just take this one step further, no one is pro-abortion, what they are is pro-choice, two entirely different things, with entirely different meanings.

      • Murc says:

        See, I don’t like making that assertion, because I’ve actually met someone who self-identifies as pro-abortion. So there’s at least one.

        But describing people who are pro-choice as pro-abortion is, in most cases, a slur.

        • DonnaFaye says:

          Ayn Rand was said to be pro-abortion, in that she believed most pregnancies should be aborted. Still, it’s an extremely rare position, unlike its opposite. There is a significant minority of the population (something close to 10% in most surveys) who believe that no pregnancy should be terminated for any reason. Many of them are elected officials or in other positions of authority and influence.

  14. DonnaFaye says:

    When someone uses the phrase “abortion industry” I consider it a tell that they’re not really pro-choice, even if they insist they are.

  15. [...] This is all nonsense. First of all, one of the administrations in question was famously opposed to abortion rights. (Who can forget when the Democratic Party did the worst thing in American history by denying Saint Robert Casey the chance to denounce a core party principle without even supporting the party’s candidate for president at the party’s convention?) And while the Ridge administration was nominally pro-choice, its failure to inspect abortion clinics was a result of its Republicanism, not its pro-choice principles. [...]

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