Gosnell and our inadequate public discourse on abortion

Gosnell and our inadequate public discourse on abortionTim Carney wrote yesterday that when Obama was a state senator, he “repeatedly voted against legislation requiring hospitals to care for babies born during abortions” because “[s]uch laws might somehow be used in the future to infringe on abortion’s legality.”  Carney argues that “Gosnell’s method for aborting babies wasn’t substantially different from a procedure Obama enthusiastically defends.” 

Today, the White House has no comment on Gosnell, noting that it concerns on an ongoing legal matter.  A totally valid response—is what I would have said if Obama didn’t have such a track record of commenting on ongoing legal matters when he felt it was politically advantageous to do so.  White House press secretary Jay Carney also had no comment on whether, similar to Newtown, babies who are being snuffed out in Gosnellian clinics deserve a vote on some new form of preventive legislation.  No such legislation has been proposed, Carney responded.  And besides, Carney went on, “the President’s views on choice are quite clear.” 

I’m surprised no one in the comments to my last post drew the connection to Alisa LaPolt Snow, the Planned Parenthood rep who suggested to a Florida legislator that babies born alive do not need further intervention from the state.  Here’s a remarkably on-point exchange:

One of the lawmakers asked her what Planned Parenthood’s position would be if a baby is born as a result of a botched abortion.

"We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family and the physician," she said.

Whoops. Had the media been covering Gosnell’s trial, Ms. LaPolt Snow probably could have qualified her response a bit better.  And then there was this: 

When another lawmaker asks her specifically what Planned Parenthood does when such a scenario happens at its clinics, she said simply, "I do not have that information."

Another lawmaker made the point that the baby born alive would become a patient as well, not just the mother.

"That’s a very good question," Snow said. "I really don’t know how to answer that."

Watching the exchange before the Gosnell story broke, I chalked that up to a failure of imagination.  A dismal failure, to be sure, but if there aren’t any reported incidents of abortion doctors murdering and mutilating babies born alive, that’s about the end of the discussion.  But if there are such incidents, well, Ms. LaPolt Snow, we have some more questions for you. 

Ms. LaPolt Snow’s responses severely undercut the suggestion that we’ve already closed the loop on the relevant moral and policy questions. As her comments indicate, while we might expect better sterilization procedures and overall compliance with health codes in abortion clinics, the basic evil of what happened in Gosnell’s clinic is not terribly surprising given the principles implicated in abortion policy when that policy is not subjected to the rigors of serious and sustained public scrutiny, when those discussions are conducted with kid-gloves, and when they are just left to judges to decide as if these questions could be answered by lawyers alone. I take the Gosnell case as an example of the failure to trace a principle to its possible consequences. "In other countries,” Edmund Burke once wrote, “the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle."

Somewhere between then and now, we have thrown in with the mercurial cast.  We vote not when we have judged the badness of a principle and anticipated an evil.  In the case of gun control, we are specifically asked not to wait and judge, but to judge now, while we’re still overcome with grief about it—because we’re still overcome with grief about it. 

Abortion policy, of course, developed quite differently than gun control policy.  But it similarly developed without enough of an attempt to anticipate its evils.  I suspect the Gosnell case suggests a wrong principle lurking in our abortion policy.  While most of mainstream discussion on the topic is polite and civil, it’s nonetheless failing to expose that wrong principle.  Our discourse is not working.  How do we fix it?

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