Unlicensed Abortion Doctor Brings Back Specter of Pre-Roe

Just days before the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Pennsylvania offered us a grim reminder of what happened before abortions were legal. A doctor and his unlicensed staff performing abortions and preying on ill-informed women caused severe injuries and even death to women who sought abortions at his clinic.

One woman–Karnamaya Mongar–is dead, numerous women were over-dosed on narcotics, others contracted venereal diseases from infected instruments, countless others sustained injuries severe enough to require emergency medical care and many were sent home from what’s been called a “house of horrors” without being told that their abortions were incomplete. And if the allegations are true, at least seven babies were killed.

“The clinic reeked of animal urine, courtesy of the cats that were allowed to roam (and defecate) freely. Furniture and blankets were stained with blood. Instruments were not properly sterilized,” a Philadelphia grand jury charged in a 281 page report [PDF] released yesterday. Fetal remains were found “in a freezer, in jars and bags and plastic jugs.” It was described as a “baby charnel house.”

The Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams had Dr. Kermit Gosnell and nine of his associates arrested. They were arraigned on Thursday, and Gosnell is being charged with third degree murder for causing the death of one of his patients and general murder of seven babies. Four, including Gosnell, were denied bail.

The grand jury alleged that Dr. Gosnell, a family practitioner who operated a clinic in a low income area of West Philadelphia, regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester and killed them by plunging scissors into their spinal cord. He manipulated ultrasounds to disguise illegal late-term abortions and had an utter “disdain for the health and safety of women, and in many cases of babies who were born alive in this filthy clinic. Because the real business of the ‘Women’s Medical Society’ was not health; it was profit.”

They blamed bureaucratic inertia for allowing Dr. Gosnell’s predatory practice to thrive, “because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”

In addition to the state and local health departments, the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which is neither a governmental nor a regulatory body, is criticized for not reporting the clinic to authorities. In fact, explains NAF President Vicki Saporta, Gonsell was never a member of NAF–an association of abortion providers that sets strict health and legal standards for its members. In what was an audacious reach for legitimacy, Gosnell did apply for membership in NAF. An evaluator from NAF arrived in December of 2009, and in spite of his attempts to deceive her, she “noted that records were not properly kept, that risks were not explained, that patients were not monitored, that equipment was not available, that anesthesia was misused.” She said it was the worst abortion clinic she had ever inspected.

NAF rejected the application in January, 2010. “The clinic cleaned up for us, hired a nurse, and in spite of their effort to put on their best face, they fell very short of meeting our standards,” said Saporta. “No woman should have to get abortion care from substandard providers like Gosnell. We operate a national health care hot line to help women make choices and provide referrals to providers of quality health care.” The standards of the National Abortion Federation are cited by the grand jury as “more protective of women’s safety than are the state’s regulations.

State and local authorities had already received more than enough evidence over the years to shut his clinic down, according to the grand jury investigation [PDF]. But they didn’t. It was only when law enforcement personnel invited state regulators to accompany them on a February 18, 2010 raid of the clinic to look for illegal prescription drugs that they “couldn’t help noticing the disgusting conditions, the dazed patients, the discarded fetuses.” Only then did they take steps to shut down the clinic.

This is the kind of story we’d hear about in the days before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Stories of women exploited by untrained, ill-equipped abortion providers, who may or may not have any training, let alone concern for their safety or well being; criminal enterprises setting up shop to make a quick buck off poor women; desperate women who didn’t have access to safe, legal abortions because they lived in the wrong state or county.

Anti-abortion forces will undoubtedly use this alleged criminal enterprise to push for even more restrictions on abortion rights. They will portray Gosnell’s practice as the norm. They will portray his clients as misguided women who wouldn’t have had abortions if they knew what it was. They will attempt to bully the Pennsylvania legislature to pass more restrictions on abortion providers.

The fact is that existing laws limiting access to abortion created this horror. This is what happens when we deprive women of affordable and accessible reproductive health care. When we force poor women who want to terminate unwanted pregnancies to wait until they can raise enough money to pay for a legal procedure, we force their abortions later in the pregnancy. And we force them into the hands of disreputable clinics. Of course, that’s the goal of these restrictions – they want to make it as difficult and challenging for these women as they can. This is what happens when we marginalize women’s health.

“Until all reproductive health care and abortion services are accessible to all who need them, women will continue to be vulnerable to exploitation and harm by those who offer substandard care,” said Charlotte Taft, Director of The Abortion Care Network, a membership organization representing Independent Abortion Providers and Allies.

We are watching the disintegration of a fundamental right–the right to choose whether and when to become mothers.

I’m afraid there may be more Dr. Gosnells uncovered while we continue to fight to make reproductive health care available, accessible and affordable for more and more American women. We must make sure that we don’t misinterpret these crimes and turn back the clock on American women.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons.


Not the singer/songwriter Carole King. Been a feminist for as long as I can remember and committed to reproductive rights even longer.