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.

This post is a part of Blog for Choice Day

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.


  1. A powerful and frightening harbinger of our futures if the right continues to expand restrictions on our access to safe, legal abortions. Thanks Carol, for the insightful article.

  2. Carol, Thanks for your post. You put into words what I thought when I heard about the raid in Philadelphia. Those of us old enough to remember when abortion was illegal recognized in an instant why Roe v Wade is so important.

  3. Jacquie Steingold says:

    Thank you for putting this butcher in perspective; when I read the article I could just see the anti-choice/anti-abortion people thinking this is why they take their position. Before Roe I was desperate and often wonder about the "doctor" I saw for a termination of a pregnancy. I was lucky and went on to have a wonderful son. Many people just don't realize what poor desperate women do when they can't bear a child — for a plethora of reasons.

  4. This is a horror story. Misogynist doctor, probably having issues with women, posing as a giver of choice to indigent women–a punisher, not a healer Bringing such sad tales to light as Carol has illuminates the risk that Roe V Wade faces once again. I was fortunate to receive a legal abortion in a clear clinic in NYC when shame and risk had been removed from the picture for all time, or so it seemed.

  5. Are you guys going to demand some accountability from the National Abortion Federation? Yeah, they rejected his application for membership, but that doesn't change the fact that a NAF member clinic allowed at least six of their patients to be subjected to Gosnell's third-trimester deliver-and-snip abortions at his filthy mill — after they'd collected his fee for him. The murder of Baby Boy A, a photo of whose discarded corpse graces the Grand Jury Report, started at a NAF clinic.

    This isn't like the Abu Hayat thing. (Google him if you have shot memories.) That whole storm blew over before anybody realized he was a NAF member, and even then nobody but the prolifers noticed. He killed a teenager, molested patients, threw patients out when they couldn't come up with more cash in the middle of their abortions, and even caught Phil Donohue's attention when he ripped the arm off a 32-week fetus who was subsequently born alive. He was good enough for NAF. Check the news clippings. Then check the National Abortion Federation Annual Report listing him as a member.

    I'm praying that now NAF gets exposed for the sham they are, and that people realize that they've been harboring butcher like Abu Hayat, and abetting ones like Kermit Gosnell, since their inception in 1978.

  6. But abortion is legal, so why isn't it safe? Because Pennsylvania state officials chose to discontinue any attempt to inspect abortion clinics in 1993, so as not to put up "barriers" to abortion. The horrors in Gosnell's clinic were enabled by pro-choice ideology, not anti-abortion ideology. Gosnell wasn't just performing illegal, late-term abortions in an illegal manner, he was inducing labor in almost all of his patients, whether they were over 24 weeks or not, letting them deliver the fetuses or infants, then if the infant survived delivery (because if the fetus is delivered alive, let's face it, it's a baby, not a fetus), killing it with the scissors. Making abortion legal up to birth would not have prevented Gosnell's atrocities. This isn't a vision of what happens with restrictions on abortion, it's a vision of no restrictions on abortion, no inspections, no oversight. Isn't that what pro-choice is all about?

    • Carol King says:

      Abortion is legal but anti-choice legislative restrictions have made it almost inaccessible for poor women. They have to wait until they have enough money, since no public funds can be sued, and by that time their pregnancies have often gone into the second trimester. It isn't just anti-choice ideology, it's the effect of the anti-choice ideologically-driven laws that allowed this doctor to continue to prey on poor women.

  7. That certainly is bizzarre. The guy was a real doctor and yet didn’t sterilize his instruments? how much can sterilizing instruments cost? I did that for my COWS! What on earth could his motivation possibly have been? Certainly not profit if the cost is insignificant.

  8. @ Jacqui: Unfortunately the reaction I've heard from some of my pro-life relatives is that this is the norm for abortion clinics and the "butchers" who perform them, a kind of "See I TOLD you" reaction. No regard for the misguided and often underprivileged women who for whatever reason were forced to seek out help in such a horrible place. As young woman born after Roe v Wade, it makes me grateful, and sad that I thought these kind of places were a thing of the past.

    • "Forced"?

      Yes, in some cases the women were being forced. Gosnell's paperwork even advised women being forced to abort to pony up the dough for extra sedation.

      But the rest were not being forced.

  9. Your assessment of the situation makes no logical sense. Gosnell cannot possibly be pro-Roe. His clinic is one of the sad results of Roe. The sacred "privacy" issue protected him from any sort of regulation, and women suffered as a result. And why, after observing the filthy, dangerous conditions of Gosnell's clinic, did the NAF inspector not report him to authorities? Why did she not care enough about the women who would use his services? It makes no sense whatsoever. You can stand back and judge him to be pre-Roe, but it's just nonsense. You offer no explanation as to why his "pre-Roe" clinic exists. The truth is that even in the best conditions, abortion is not safe for women or unborn children. Every successful abortion results in at least one death. Roe v Wade is to blame for this awful clinic. Why can't you admit that?

    • Been there before says:

      That argument is specious. Those women would have gone to a reputable clinic if one had been available. And as a man who never has to carry a child, who can walk away and analyze the situation over drinks while the woman suffers health consequenses and a change of life that is irreversible, you should think twice and speak once on such issues that you can never ever understand.

  10. So Vicki's National Abortion Federation member clinic in Delaware — the one that hired Gosnell and turned over at least six illegal third trimester abortion patients to him — is under investigation.

    You guys put so much effort into trying to shut down prolife pregnancy centers — who have killed nobody — while blithely ignoring the Kermit Gosnells. Start putting as much effort into protecting women from quackery as you do into protecting them from pictures of fetuses, and get rid of the attitude that it's better to be killed by an abortionist than annoyed by a prolifer.

  11. Do you truly not get it? In Pennsylvania, prochoice politics prevailed. "Access" was god. And Kermit Gosnell was the result.

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