What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Abortion Right Now

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President Obama defended Planned Parenthood — it's "not going anywhere, it's not going anywhere today, not going anywhere tomorrow" — at the organization's gala Friday, amid increasing state-level restrictions on abortion and controversy over the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion doctor. As Obama spoke (he became the first sitting president to speak at an event held by the group), Fox News aired footage of Gosnell. The coverage is a perfect representation of the split in how we talk about abortion: on one side, a triumphant march of progress for women, and on the other side, a fixation on late-term abortion nationally. Less covered is how some states are working to stop all abortions.

In his speech, Obama spent some time defending Obamacare, and urged supporters to tell their friends to join the health insurance exchanges the law sets up. But he mostly defended the group, saying conservatives tried to "turn Planned Parenthood into a punching bag." Opponents "turn the clock back to policies more suited to the 1950s." In closing, Obama assured the crowd: "You've also got a president who's gonna be right there with you, fighting every step of the way."

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The crowd seemed to love the speech. Planned Parenthood probably feels like it needs a fighter. Personhood bills — which would define a fetus as a person, and therefore outlaw abortion — have been floated in several states. After the Arkansas state legislature banned abortion after 12 weeks, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law a bill that bans abortions after six weeks — even though Roe v. Wade allows abortions until a fetus can survive outside the womb. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a bill saying life begins at fertilization. And Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law abortion clinic safety requirements that make it hard for most clinics to stay open. (An October poll found "an enormous margin" of Americans trusted President Obama to do a better job making decisions about women's reproductive rights.) 

But nationally, the abortion debate is focused on the trial of Kermit Gosnell, who is accused of doing horrendous and gross things: storing pieces of fetuses' feet in jars, killing fetuses born alive by snipping their spinal cords with scissors, leaving parts of fetuses inside women. In USA Today earlier this month, Kirsten Powers claimed the media was ignoring Gosnell's case because it would harm the pro-choice cause. Several people picked this up. At Bloomberg View, Jeffrey Goldberg said he had not heard of the case until Powers' column. "This story — which if nothing else suggests that live births do, in fact, happen during late- term abortions — upsets a particular narrative about the reality of certain types of abortion, and that reality isn't something some pro-choice absolutists want to discuss," Goldberg writes. (Despite the apparent media blackout, at left is a 2011 Associated Press photo of a woman who says she got an STD after getting an abortion at Gosnell's clinic in 2001.)

Some pro-life people see this case as a knock-out blow against abortion. But what reality about abortion does Gosnell show? That doctors like to store baby feet in jars? Gosnell is not the norm. That's why he's being prosecuted. Should his clinic have been closed down sooner? Yes. Because he's not the norm! The reality is the Gosnell case shows bad people prey on desperate people. The real fight over abortion is over the width of hallways in clinics and how to measure when life begins. The real fight over women's reproductive health is taking place in the laboratories of democracy. But that's not as exciting as a trial worthy of a season finale on Law and Order: SVU.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.