Kermit Gosnell and the abortion movement's dark past

Ultrasound by Shutterstock.com

Flash back to 1972. Dr. Harvey Karman, a star of the abortion movement, came up with a bold publicity stunt. The 1972 "mass Mother's Day abortion," as the Chicago Tribune described it, was designed to show that late-term abortions could be easy and safe.

The site of this demonstration was the Philadelphia abortion clinic of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. The media was alerted, and television cameras rolled in. Arriving by bus were 18 pregnant women, half of them teenagers, who would undergo a new abortion technique called the "Super Coil."

A Los Angeles Times article in April 1972 -- a month before Karman went to Philadelphia -- reported that his "method ... permits abortions of pregnancies up to the seventh month -- or later without the use of either anesthetics or standard metal surgical instruments."

The Times article went on to describe the Super Coil: "In advanced pregnancies up to the seventh month, Karman inserts one or more small, equally simplified plastic coils into the uterus. When exposed to moisture, the coils expand, inducing a miscarriage within 10-20 hours."

The Tribune described the instrument as "a series of plastic coils inserted into the uterus. The plastic is supposed to absorb water and expand pushing the fetus out in about 12 hours." An average fetus at 27 weeks gestation (seven months) is more than a foot long.

One of Gosnell's assistants, in a recent Philadelphia grand jury report, described the Super Coil as "basically plastic razors that were formed into a ball" and covered in gel. "After several hours of body temperature, it would then -- the gel would melt, and these 97 things would spring open, supposedly cutting up the fetus, and the fetus would be expelled."

Karman, under the auspices of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, had traveled to Bangladesh to abort babies conceived through rape by soldiers. Now the inventor was taking his weapon in the abortion wars to Gosnell's clinic, and New York's public television station was there to catch it on camera. Things didn't go well.

"At least two of the 18 women given abortions had to be hospitalized afterward," the Tribune reported. "One of them almost died. Nine suffered other complications, including bleeding and infection."

When Karman, a former colleague of Gosnell, died in 2008, much of the media touted him as a hero. The Chicago Tribune's obituary read: "Harvey Karman 84, flamboyant psychologist who invented a device that made a key contribution to women's reproductive health, particularly by making abortions simpler, less expensive and less painful; May 6, in Santa Barbara, Calif., of a stroke."

Indeed, Karman's abortion method for the first trimester -- suctioning out a tiny baby with a modified syringe -- became the industry norm. Karman's Super Coil was abandoned.

Pro-choicers have debated whether Karman was a hero of women or exploiter of women. These days, the pro-choice movement unanimously decries Karman's former partner, Gosnell.

The pro-choice group Reproductive Health Reality Check held a conference call Tuesday morning, bringing on experts to argue that women were driven to Gosnell by restrictions on abortion and abortion subsidies. The conference call focused on Gosnell's poor treatment of the mothers, mostly ignoring the main reason he's on trial: his gruesome method of ending pregnancies.

What's the difference between how Gosnell aborted these babies and how legal abortionists abort babies after 20 weeks of pregnancy, I asked.

"I think it's important to recognize that this particular procedure is nowhere in the medical literature," explained Tracy Weitz, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

"When a procedure that usually involves the collapsing of the skull is done, it's usually done when the fetus is still in the uterus, not when the fetus has been delivered."

Weitz went on to describe the standard 24-week abortion: "When inductions for delivery -- that is, in the third trimester, when procedures are performed, when abortions are performed, they are usually done as inductions. That is, they look much more like a labor and delivery. And the fetus is traditionally euthanized before that procedure is initiated. Two drugs, either potassium chloride or digoxin, are used to make sure that the fetus is not living before the procedure is initiated."

Weitz argued that the post-delivery and predelivery procedures "are completely worlds apart." It's hard to fathom the moral difference here, but in the wake of Gosnell, the pro-choice movement depends on preserving this distinction.

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