THE BLOG
02/02/2011 05:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women Are Casualties in High Profile Abortion Fight

The year has gotten off to a bad start for everyone with a stake in the fight over abortion rights. Instead of focusing efforts to repeal Roe v. Wade on political solutions and lobbying, the pro-life movement continues to adopt the tactics of obstruction at all costs, dragging medical professionals into a political minefield and putting patients at risk.

In Pennsylvania, when a grand jury indictment for abortionist Kermit Gosnell went public, the whole country got a reminder of what it looks like when medicine is allowed to fester without oversight. Gosnell was a butcher who for whom medical malpractice was his standard operating procedure. In the process, he was aided and abetted by the state of Pennsylvania and its negligent regulations. His squalid, unsanitary clinic, which was decorated with a macabre assortment of fetal limbs preserved in formaldehyde, could not have passed a safety inspection. And he certainly merited an inspection, since his patients had a tendency to end up in real hospitals requiring emergency services. Gosnell wasn't caught for so long because regulations in Pennsylvania were weak and poorly enforced.

This lax system is a betrayal of the women of Pennsylvania, who expect that medical facilities and doctors are subject to a reasonable level of oversight. Unfortunately, the pro-choice side has not always been a force for strong regulation and enforcement. Many pro-choice activists develop an embattled, suspicious attitude when it comes to proposals to regulate abortion. That's not surprising, since plenty of proposed regulations are deliberately designed to obstruct abortion providers, not protect the health of the woman.

This week, Congress adopted a particularly egregious tactic of this type in the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act." The bill, which John Boehner called a top priority, would change the usual exemption allowing abortion in the case of rape or incest. The new bill would limit the incest proviso to minors only and abortions would be permitted only in case of 'forcible rape.' That means that a woman who was drugged and date-raped would no longer have really been raped since she wasn't threatened with physical violence. A woman who consented to a certain level of physical intimacy and then asked her partner to stop wouldn't really be raped unless her partner hit her.

Medical professionals are supposed to be able to put the health of the patient first, not be hampered by political tricks. The actions of Boehner and Congressional Republicans put women at medical and legal risk by diminishing the definition of rape. Activists with no background in medicine may not understand the consequences of their critiques or challenges.

In a 'sting' video filmed surreptitiously at a Planned Parenthood in New Jersey and released yesterday, two pro-life activists representing themselves as a pimp and a prostitute, asked a clinic worker for advice. The pro-life group has castigated Planned Parenthood for colluding with and 'offering business advice to a pimp.' This accusation is based on the clinic worker's advice that, if any of the prostitutes had an abortion, they should abstain from all sexual activity for a minimum of two weeks. When the faux-pimp asked if they could do anything else for money during that period, the Planned Parenthood employee clarified that they could only do anything from the waist up.

Conservative ire quickly built up online, but, in this instance, the clinic worker was doing her medical duty. She had no contact with the pimp's prostitutes and no guarantee that she would see them in the future, so she gave pertinent, essential medical advice to the pimp, the only person she had access to. Her first duty was to the patients, and she couldn't afford to reprimand the pimp in the office for fear he might deny his escorts their shot at life-saving medical care. (Planned Parenthood did report the fake pimp to the FBI after he left, since he had implied he was trafficking minors, but they did not confront him in the video). The clinic behaved mostly ethically, assuming their goal was to make sure the girls would have access to treatment, if the police didn't catch the pimp, but their ethics are a question for a formal regulatory board or investigation, not inflammatory activists borrowing a trick from provocateur Andrew Breitbart.

People who have a principled opposition to abortion have every right to work to see it outlawed, but the battle over abortion access can't be fought using regulations as weapons. Both sides need to declare a truce and accept that, while abortion is legal, it should be regulated according to the same standards as any analogous medical procedure. Writing medical regulations requires medical expertise and isn't a project for congresswomen or activists who don't understand the duties of doctors. Perhaps it would be best to appoint a non-partisan commission of doctors at the state or federal level, to recommend regulations that are designed for the safety of the patient, not as an end-run around the law. I suspect even that solution would end up politicized, so here's an easier one: simply pick the regulations/inspection schedule for a roughly analogous medical procedure and implement those.

When medical regulation becomes a political battlefield, the patients are sure losers.