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James Taranto’s Anti-Choice Trooferism

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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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