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Kermit Gosnell trial: Will it affect abortion rights?

As the murder trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell enters its fifth week, national media attention is ramping up. And that, in turn, raises the question of whether the sensational trial will affect the debate over abortion rights raging in some states.

Already, in recent weeks, several states have moved to impose new restrictions on abortion, such as a new rule in Virginia that requires abortion clinics to upgrade to hospital-style building codes. Opponents of abortion say they are meant to protect women. Abortion-rights advocates say the new rules are aimed at driving the clinics out of business.

In North Dakota and Arkansas, new laws ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, effectively banning the procedure altogether. The laws are being challenged in court, setting up potential Supreme Court challenges to the Roe v. Wade precedent that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

Enter the Gosnell trial. The allegations against the abortionist – who was not a gynecologist or obstetrician, according to a 2011 grand jury report – are gruesome. The doctor stands accused of delivering seven preterm infants alive and then murdering them. He is also charged with murdering a Nepalese woman who overdosed on sedatives while awaiting an abortion.

In the trial, former employees of the clinic have described a chaotic, filthy workplace with clients who were predominantly poor and minorities. Gosnell routinely performed abortions after 30 weeks of gestation, the grand jury report alleges. Pennsylvania law bans abortion after 24 weeks’ gestational age, when a fetus is considered viable outside the womb.

Both sides in the abortion debate point to the Gosnell case as proof of their convictions. Antiabortion advocates say that new standards for abortion clinics are needed to prevent those like Gosnell’s from operating. Groups favoring abortion rights say that Pennsylvania regulations were adequate, but not being followed.

“Pennsylvania is not a third-world country,” the grand jury report said. “There were several oversight agencies that stumbled upon and should have shut down Kermit Gosnell long ago.”

Gosnell, in fact, was only caught “by accident,” the report says, when police raided his offices to seize evidence that he was selling prescriptions illegally.

“Once law enforcement agents went in, they couldn’t help noticing the disgusting conditions, the dazed patients, the discarded fetuses,” the reports say. “That is why the complete regulatory collapse that occurred here is so inexcusable. It should have taken only one look.”

In addition, Gosnell was reportedly offering his abortion services at cut rates, making his clinic a go-to destination for low-income women. And because he allegedly disregarded the law banning abortion after 24 weeks’ gestation, he attracted customers who, for a variety of reasons, were beyond that point in their pregnancies.

Some women, for example, face delays as they save up money. State law prohibits public funding for abortion except when necessary to save the woman’s life or in cases of rape or incest. Women under age 18 must receive parental consent. The state also requires mandatory counseling and a 24-hour waiting period before undergoing an abortion. For some women, many of them single, low-income, and already with children, these hurdles can lead to significant delays.

NARAL Pro-Choice America gives Pennsylvania an “F” in its abortion-related laws.

“Gosnell’s clinic existed because desperate women are being pushed into an extraordinarily difficult place by the increasing regulations on access to safe and legal abortion,” says Tarek Rizk, communications director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In an interview with the Associated Press, a former patient of Gosnell’s in 2001 said she went first to Planned Parenthood in downtown Philadelphia for an abortion but left.

“The picketers out there, they just scared me half to death,” said Davida Johnson.

So she went to Gosnell’s clinic, the Women’s Medical Society, and was confronted by a horrific scene of dazed women and unsanitary conditions. She said she changed her mind about the abortion, but “they tied my hands and arms down and gave me more medication,” she told the AP.

Abortion opponents point to the Gosnell case as evidence that further regulation is needed to protect women, such as the new building codes for clinics in Virginia.

“Since Kermit Gosnell’s ‘house of horrors’ clinic was discovered in 2010, several states have enacted measures to ensure women going into abortion facilities are treated with basic dignity and respect,” Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement.

In its 2011 grand jury report, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office makes recommendations aimed at addressing problems that have arisen from the Gosnell case. One buttresses the case of the antiabortion side: that the Pennsylvania Department of Health should license abortion clinics as “ambulatory surgical facilities,” or ASFs.

“Had the state Department of Health not inexplicably declined to classify abortion clinics as ASFs,” the report said, “Gosnell’s clinic would have been subject to yearly inspection and licensing.”

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