Flawed symbol: What the abortion doctor's guilt really means

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Abortion is arguably the most divisive issue in American public life, yet the reaction to the conviction of Kermit Barron Gosnell for murder of babies in a rogue abortion facility in Philadelphia will be greeted with near unanimity: Good riddance.

Gosnell was the physician who performed illegal late-term abortions despite not being certified to perform abortions. He operated in conditions of deplorable squalor, and he was charged with snipping the spines of some of the babies born alive. It was truly a house of horrors.

While his lawyer said that characterization was a "political press fabrication," a Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia had the sense to know what it was dealing with. On Monday, the seven women and five men in the jury convicted Gosnell of three counts of first-degree murder.

To avoid the death penalty, Gosnell dropped his right to appeal in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole. Whether people are pro-life or pro-choice, there's wide agreement that women are better off -- Pennsylvania is better off -- without Gosnell going about his illegal business.

And that's where the agreement ends, right at the point where the debate begins about what his conviction symbolizes. To those who think all abortion is murder, it is taken as confirmation of their position, representing an extreme pole, perhaps, but on the same immoral continuum.

That absolutist position simply doesn't comport to the facts. This was the very definition of a renegade facility. It hadn't been inspected since 1993, a dereliction of state government oversight that spanned administrations liberal and conservative. Late-term abortions, even when they are legal, are a fraction of all abortions performed. As for the squalor and inhumanity, if Gosnell had been held to the rules that apply to efficient and legal facilities, none of this would have happened.

That is the lesson to take away from the conviction of a monster -- but it is not the lesson that has been learned. Pennsylvania only partially blamed its own bureaucracy where the blame truly lay.

True, the state did fire some officials, but it used the case as an excuse to punish abortion clinics that operate properly in allowing women to exercise a constitutional right. It required them to build unnecessary extras -- hospital-grade elevators, parking lots, etc. -- that had little to do with the Gosnell case but everything to do with harassing clinics.

It is worth recalling what the grand jury thought was the cause of the chronic institutional neglect of Gosnell's clinic: "We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities and because the subject was the political football of abortion."

And if the political football keeps bouncing favorably for the extreme anti-abortion viewpoint, Gosnell will be happily gone but the back-alley days of abortion will sadly return, and one house of horrors will be replaced by many.

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