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Column: Kermit Gosnell Wasn’t Typical in Any Way

Kermit Gosnell, the notorious Philadelphia late-term abortionist, has been convicted. A jury found him guilty of murder for killing three babies after failed abortions, and of involuntary manslaughter for causing a woman’s death.

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. Yoest points to investigations of other clinics for “dangerous and unsanitary practices that exposed women to injuries and infections, and infants born alive following attempted abortions.”

The bad news for pro-lifers — 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 pro-lifers themselves.

Let’s start with a myth that’s been going around the pro-life 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, R, told a Florida House committee 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.

Pro-lifers 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. “1,270 Babies Born Alive After Failed Abortions in the U.S.,” declared Life News. The Weekly Standard reported that Pigman had “testified that in 2010 there were 1,270 infants in the United States whose deaths were reported as ‘mortality subsequent to an abortion.’ ” On April 9, Yoest told a Florida Senate committee that “1,270 infants were reported to have died following attempted 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 five 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 1 percent are performed at 21 weeks or later. That’s a decline, in both total and percentage terms, over the last decade.

Pro-lifers say the Gosnell case shows that “abusive, contemptuous doctors are more the norm in freestanding 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.

The videos also show how concerned the providers are with safety. Even the least sympathetic of the taped doctors, LeRoy Carhart, carefully instructs his patient (who’s actually a spy) to stay within 15 minutes of the clinic so that if she develops any complications, his 24-hour staff can get to her promptly. Pro-lifers have blamed Carhart for the recent death of a high-risk patient, Jennifer Morbelli, who came to him with a wanted pregnancy that had turned out, in the third trimester, to be fatally defective. On Monday, almost simultaneously with the Gosnell verdict, police announced their decision in Morbelli’s case. Based on the medical examiner’s final report, they’re closing the investigation.

Women do die from legal abortions. But the fatality rate, compared to 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. He was a horrible doctor. He was reckless with his patients, and he killed viable babies, outside the womb, with callous indifference. Pennsylvania’s regulatory system, which should have patrolled him, was a joke. I wrote about all of these issues two years ago, again and again and again, long before pro-lifers accused the press of ignoring Gosnell. The problems pro-lifers 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.

William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.