Kermit Gosnell is one of a kind

  • Article by: WILLIAM SALETAN , Slate
  • Updated: May 14, 2013 - 8:38 PM

We shouldn’t dismiss his actions or ignore prolifers’ concerns, but we ought to work with the actual numbers.

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Dr. Kermit Gosnell is escorted to a waiting police van upon leaving the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia after being convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies who were delivered alive and then killed with scissors at his clinic.

Kermit Gosnell, the notorious Philadelphia late-term abortionist, has been convicted. Now comes the smear campaign. “Gosnell is not alone,” says Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. “Gosnell is not an outlier,” says Lila Rose, president of Live Action. Gosnell is “not the aberration,” says Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.

The bad news for prolifers — and the good news for everybody else — is that Gosnell really is an outlier. Other abortion clinics don’t do what he did to patients or live-born babies. Few have even come close: Late-term abortions and patient deaths are relatively rare. Part of the exonerating evidence comes from government data. The rest comes, inadvertently, from prolifers themselves.

Let’s start with a myth that’s been going around the prolife echo chamber: that the number of babies born alive after failed abortions in this country exceeds 1,000 per year. Here’s how the myth got started.

On April 4, state Rep. Cary Pigman of Florida told a House committee there that in 2010, a total of 1,270 infant deaths were given a range of perinatal disease codes denoting the causes or circumstances of death. One of the codes was P 96.4, which Pigman called “mortality subsequent to an abortion.”

Pigman didn’t say where he got the number, but you can find it on page 24 of a report from the Centers for Disease Control. The table shows that the 1,270 deaths are the combined tally for all “other perinatal conditions,” a category that includes a large number of codes.

Prolifers clipped parts of Pigman’s testimony, removing the section where he referred to other perinatal conditions, and they attributed all 1,270 deaths to botched abortions.

That number is off by a factor of 30 to 40. If you go to the CDC’s Wonder database and plug in code 96.4, you’ll find that in 2010, the total number of deaths linked to this condition (“Termination of pregnancy, newborn”) was 30. In 2009, it was 42. In 2008, it was 33. In 2007, it was 30.

In most of these cases, the fetus had gestated less than 24 weeks — not enough to survive outside the womb. How many of the coded deaths were fetuses 24 weeks along or more? The database shows three in 2007, seven in 2008 and six in 2009.

When you consider the percentage of deaths in this group that were also attributed to other factors such as “neonatal cardiac dysrhythmia” or “hypoxic schemic encephalopathy” — roughly 50 to 90 percent — we’re probably talking about two to three cases a year in which the death of a post-viability baby was attributed solely to abortion. And we have no idea from the records whether these abortions were done to save the woman’s life.

Live Action thinks there are lots of born-alive killings. To prove it, in the last six months, the organization has sent actresses into clinics with hidden cameras. The actresses, posing as patients, have asked clinic workers about born-alive scenarios, hoping to expose a pattern of infanticide. Instead, they’ve found nothing.

“We never had that, for ages of being in this practice,” one clinic employee says in a video secretly recorded by Live Action. “We never had a situation like that,” says another. “That’s never happened,” says a third. A fourth assures the actress, “These kinds of issues that you’re talking about, they don’t happen.”

Unable to find an epidemic of born-alive murders, Live Action says the videos underscore the general ugliness of late-term abortions. That’s true. But late-term abortions are rare and getting rarer. According to the latest CDC data, only 8 percent of abortions are performed after 13 weeks gestation (the end of the first trimester), and only one percent are performed at 21 weeks or later. That’s a decline, in both total and percentage terms, over the last decade.

Prolifers say the Gosnell case shows that “abusive, contemptuous doctors are more the norm in free-standing abortion clinics than the public is willing to admit.” But the Live Action videos — the raw footage, not the edited versions the organization promotes — show the opposite.

Most of the doctors and counselors seem more attentive and compassionate than the average nurse or physician. They help patients talk through their decisions. They offer financial help. They assuage anxieties. They answer endless questions.

Women do die from legal abortions. But the fatality rate, compared with other procedures and options, is remarkably low. In 2010, for every 1 million women who gave birth, 155 died from pregnancy-related factors. By comparison, over the last 25 years, for every 1 million women who had abortions, six died.

I’m not giving you these numbers to whitewash the Gosnell fiasco. The problems prolifers want to talk about — bad clinics and late abortions — are real. But let’s not pretend those problems are rampant or getting worse. They aren’t.

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