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Kermit Gosnell's case is closed. Will we draw the right lessons?

After deliberating for 10 days, a Philadelphia jury voted today to convict rogue physician Kermit Gosnell on three counts of first-degree murder and one case of
Dr. Kermit Gosnell in March 2010  (AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News, Yong Kim)
Dr. Kermit Gosnell in March 2010

After deliberating for 10 days, a Philadelphia jury voted today to convict rogue physician Kermit Gosnell on three counts of first-degree murder and one case of involuntary manslaughter. The FBI shut down Gosnell’s now-infamous abortion clinic in 2010, when agents investigating drug charges raided the facility and found a fetid, repellent scene where patients had been mistreated and live babies killed with scissors.

The jurors also convicted Gosnell of racketeering, conspiracy and infanticide (for aborting fetuses more than 24 weeks old). He was acquitted on a fourth count of murder, but the other capital convictions could carry the death penalty.

The court will reconvene Tuesday to sentence Gosnell for his crimes. But whatever his own fate, the battle continue over the meaning of his atrocities and the best way to prevent future ones.

Gosnell started the so-called Women's Medical Society during the 1970s and ran it for more than 30 years before his abuses came to light. The facility was based in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood where poor, uninsured women had access to his for-cash services. State health inspectors sporadically inspected and approved the clinic between 1978 and 1993 but they hadn't been there in 17 years when the FBI showed up in February 2010.

A 2011 grand jury report on the clinic detailed horrors that are hard to fathom in a modern, developed country. In August 2010, six months after the FBI closed the clinic, a grand jury went back to tour it. Despite a significant cleanup, they found what the Philadelphia district attorney's office described as a “wretched” space. “The walls appeared to be urine-splattered,” according to the report. “The procedure tables were old and one had a ripped plastic cover. Suction tubing, which was used for abortion procedures—and doubled as the only available suction source for resuscitation—was corroded.”

“For decades,” the report says, “Gosnell did not staff his facility with licensed or qualified employees. He never properly monitored women under sedation. He botched surgeries and then failed to summon emergency help when it was needed.”

The facility netted Gosnell about $1.8 million a year, according to press reports, and his holdings included a beach home and several rental properties. When investigators searched his house, they also found $250,000 hidden in a bedroom.

Anti-abortion activists have seized on the raid, the trial and now the verdict to tar all abortion providers as Gosnells who have yet to receive justice. “The greatest tragedy is that Kermit Gosnell is not alone,” the Susan B. Anthony List declared in a statement on Monday. “Exploitation of women and complete disregard for their health and well-being are problems endemic to the entire abortion industry.”

The right-wing Family Research Council sounded the same theme, saying the Gosnell case highlights “two major problems with the abortion industry in this country—its callous disregard for the health and safety of women and the inhumanity of abortion, especially late-term abortion.”

But such statements highlight two major problems with the anti-choice brigade: its refusal to distinguish between murder and a constitutionally protected medical procedure, and its ignorance (or misrepresentation) of the relationship between patients and caregivers. By these groups’ reasoning, a woman with reproductive rights is more vulnerable to exploitation than one who has to troll the black market to terminate a pregnancy.

This country has tried both arrangements, and we know which one fosters abuse. As NARAL Pro-Choice America said in response to the conviction, “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.”

The man himself will now face justice, and Pennsylvania’s state health department will no doubt strengthen its inspection regimen. The remaining challenge is to avoid drawing the wrong lessons from the tragedy.