Analysis Abortion

Kermit Gosnell’s Horror Show

Katha Pollitt

The Women's Medical Society in West Philadelphia is what illegal abortion looks like - because it's what illegal abortion is.

This article orginally appeared in the February 14, 2011 edition of The Nation and can also be found on The Nation’s web site.

See all our coverage of the Kermit Gosnell case here.

Blood-spattered floors. Cat feces. Broken equipment. A 15-year-old giving anesthesia. Two women dead, countless more maimed and injured. Third-trimester fetuses delivered alive whose spines were then severed by the doctor. This was the Women’s Medical Society in West Philadelphia. This is what illegal abortion looks like.

That’s right. Illegal abortion. A great deal has been written about Dr. Kermit Gosnell and the shocking conditions and practices at his facility, which was closed last March after a drug raid, and is back in the news because a grand jury has indicted him and nine employees for murder in the deaths of one woman and seven infants. There have been many calls for further restrictions on abortion, much revulsion expressed at post-viability abortions, much blame cast on prochoicers for supposedly doing nothing to stop him. But it has not been pointed out often enough that what Dr. Gosnell was doing was illegal in Pennsylvania. It is not legal to perform abortions after twenty-four weeks. It is not legal to slit the necks of born-alive fetuses at any age, much less at thirty weeks or even more. It is not legal for untrained, unlicensed employees to perform medical procedures.

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Now prochoicers are being blamed for this rogue operator. The grand jury report suggests that Tom Ridge, Republican governor from 1995 to 2001, discontinued inspections because prochoicers claimed they were too burdensome. The ones I talked to were skeptical. “We never lobbied against inspection,” Carol Tracy of the Women’s Law Project, which represents clinics in Pennsylvania, told me by phone. She pointed out that under Ridge’s Democratic predecessor, Bob Casey, who was famously opposed to legal abortion, Gosnell’s clinic was inspected three times, and each time serious problems were found. Nothing was done. Perhaps it’s relevant that Gosnell’s patients were poor, many of them immigrants—like 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar from Nepal, with whose murder Gosnell has been charged—who may not even have known that safe and legal abortion is available here.

On Slate, William Saletan agreed with the grand jury’s criticism of the National Abortion Federation, which rejected Gosnell’s 2009 application for membership, for failing to alert state authorities to the terrible conditions at his facility. In her organization’s defense, NAF head Vicki Saporta says, “What we saw didn’t meet our standards, but they’d cleaned the place up and hired an RN for our visit. We only saw first-trimester procedures.” Others did alert authorities about problems at the facility, though. A doctor from the Children’s Hospital hand-delivered a complaint to the Health Department after numerous patients returned from Gosnell’s facility with venereal disease from unsterilized instruments. The department never responded. As the grand jury report noted, the department was also alerted by the medical examiner of Delaware County that Gosnell had performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year-old who was thirty weeks pregnant. And the department was informed of Mongar’s death at Gosnell’s hands. Brenda Green, executive director of CHOICE, a nonprofit that connects the underinsured and uninsured with health services, told me it tried to report complaints from clients, but the department wouldn’t accept them from a third party. Instead, the patients had to fill out a daunting five-page form, available only in English, that required them to reveal their identities upfront and be available to testify in Harrisburg. Even with CHOICE staffers there to help, only two women agreed to fill out the form, and both decided not to submit it. The Department of State and the Philadelphia Public Health Department also had ample warning of dire conditions and took no action.

It might seem odd that Pennsylvania, where antichoice legislators have laden abortion with restrictions, should have been so uninterested in the Women’s Medical Society. But actually it makes perfect sense. As Carol Tracy put it, “The problem here was that Pennsylvania has always focused on eliminating abortion, not on abortion as healthcare.” In fact, as she points out, the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, the primary vehicle for regulating abortion, is part of the criminal code. “Since abortion isn’t seen as medical care, they didn’t have the appropriate locus for oversight.”

What fueled Gosnell’s business were the very restrictions the legislature was so keen on passing—parental notification, waiting periods, biased counseling and, most important, a ban on state funding for abortion for low-income women. Would women have gone to the Women’s Medical Society if Pennsylvania paid for abortion with Medicaid funds? Would they have had late procedures if they could have afforded earlier ones? Maybe some underage girls went to him to avoid the parental notification rules that supposedly protected them. Only women who felt they had no better alternative would have accepted such dangerous, degrading and frightening treatment. In a way, that’s the saddest part—that women didn’t feel they could turn around and leave.

Will Pennsylvania learn anything from this experience? No, says Brenda Green. As I write, the state legislature has fast-tracked a bill that will ban any insurance plan that covers abortion from insurance exchanges set up under healthcare reform. That means more women forced to pay for abortion out of pocket—and more customers for unscrupulous providers. “That Gosnell was able to get away with his horrific practice does not prove new regulations are needed,” says Susan Schewel, executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund, which helps low-income women pay for their abortions. “It shows we need to enforce the laws we have.”

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.