Analysis Abortion

Anti-Choice Advocates Disingenuously Claim Ohio Clinic Represents ‘Other Gosnell’

Sharona Coutts

Anti-choice campaigners have attempted to tar all abortion providers with the crimes of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. But a close reading of a state inspection report on a Cuyahoga Falls clinic shows that the problems identified there—while serious—were of a different order of magnitude to anything found at Gosnell’s clinic.

When the Ohio Department of Health shuttered the Capital Care Network abortion clinic in Cuyahoga Falls this April, anti-choice campaigners claimed state inspectors had discovered “Gosnell-like violations” of state health laws at the facility.

“These deplorable conditions should cause all Ohioans to pause and wonder what else Planned Parenthood and their allies are hiding across the state,” Ohio Right to Life president, Mike Gonidakis, told World Magazine, a Christian publication. Gonidakis, who is also a member of the State Medical Board of Ohio, then asserted, “Capital Care’s violations prove that the abortion industry does not operate as a health provider and is reckless.”

Such is the latest weapon in the anti-choice rhetorical arsenal: Since the arrest, trial, and conviction of rogue abortion provider Kermit B. Gosnell, anti-choice campaigners, publications, and politicians have exploited that case to argue for state and federal laws that further erode the constitutional right to abortion.

Their strategy is to make such laws seem necessary by insinuating that abortion providers are, as a group, engaged in unsafe or unscrupulous conduct. A key tactic is to tar all providers with the crimes of Gosnell, who was convicted in May of three counts of murder and one count of manslaughter, and last week pleaded guilty to federal drug charges for dispensing drugs illegally in his West Philadelphia clinic.

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However, a close reading of the state inspection report on the Ohio clinic shows that the problems identified there—while serious—were of a different order of magnitude to anything found at Gosnell’s clinic, according to reproductive health professionals.

“I think drawing that comparison is extremely confusing to people because it’s inaccurate,” said Charlotte Taft, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, a nonprofit membership organization of abortion providers and allies. “To say that this particular clinic has multiple deficiencies, which are not appropriate for a functioning health care practice, is not the same as saying therefore it is similar to Gosnell. These are a world apart.”

Gosnell has been convicted of murdering newborn infants. Evidence at trial indicated that he snipped their spinal cords by stabbing them with scissors through the back of the neck.

The jury also convicted Gosnell of manslaughter in relation to the case of Karnamaya Mongar, a 41-year-old immigrant who underwent an abortion on November 19, 2009, but died from an overdose of anesthesia the following day. Mongar reportedly experienced severe pain during the procedure, and one of Gosnell’s associates—an unskilled worker—testified during Gosnell’s trial that the rogue doctor continued the abortion even as Mongar “turned grey and her breathing slowed.”

According to the grand jury report, women who arrived at Gosnell’s clinic were given potentially lethal drug cocktails by an unsupervised high school student. Unlicensed and untrained workers gave women drugs that were intended to initiate their abortions, and left them—frequently semi-conscious—in a filthy waiting room where seats were stained with blood and the floor was littered with cat feces. Inspectors also discovered jars containing the feet of fetuses, and leaking bags of biological waste that had been stored in the basement instead of promptly removed by a biohazard service.

Nothing in the Ohio report on Capital Care Network remotely resembles these findings. The Ohio report does not allege that any patients were actually harmed at the Capital Care clinic, or that illegal abortions were performed there. And though there were some serious problems with the facility, it did not remotely resemble the putrid conditions found at Gosnell’s clinic.

Some of the most serious problems identified at Capital Care related to an apparent lack of oversight from clinic administrators, reproductive health experts told Rewire.

For instance, the clinic had allowed its pharmacy license to lapse, and failed to document required staff training in infection control measures. Inspectors also found many gaps in the facility’s quality assurance program, according to the health department’s report, and the clinic did not have the required agreement with a hospital to accept transfers of its patients.

The facility had also incorrectly noted the remaining amounts of fentanyl, a potent pain medication, leading departmental inspectors to confiscate six syringes filled with the drug. Key staffers lacked the required qualifications in cardiac resuscitation, and inspectors noted multiple problems with resuscitation equipment. And the clinic could not provide evidence of all patients’ written consent before procedures such as inserting a device to dilate the cervix or drawing blood for use in future blood-type analyses.

Experts told Rewire that these amount to serious violations.

“I’m not going to downplay the importance of these findings,” said Taft. “The violation of these regulations are not necessarily indications that patients were harmed; however, they are indications that the practice was not being conducted according to the standards that women deserve.”

Other shortcomings identified by the Ohio inspectors, though, were unlikely to ever pose a risk to patients. For instance, the clinic was pinged because it could not prove that all patients had been provided with an ultrasound of their fetus prior to their procedure. Laws that require forced ultrasounds have been widely criticized as invasive, medically unnecessary, and a potential source of trauma for patients.

The only alleged violation that echoes the practices found at Gosnell’s clinic was that Capital Care allowed certain controlled substances to be administered to patients by a worker who lacked the required credentials to do so. But the report also states that the worker at the Ohio clinic—who had a medical assistant degree—only administered the medications at the direction of a physician, and there is no indication that a patient was ever harmed as a result of this practice.

Taft said that the comparisons between the situation at Capital Care and the Gosnell case are disingenuous and make a mockery of Gosnell’s victims.

“This is a very poorly run clinic with multiple deficiencies, but I don’t think there is anything that puts them in the same category as Gosnell,” she said.

Capital Care Network once ran up to five abortion clinics—four in Ohio and one in Fort Wayne, Indiana—and the Cuyahoga Falls location is not the only facility that has run into regulatory troubles. In August 2012, the state health department said it planned to revoke the license for a Capital Care clinic in Toledo, but agreed to allow it to remain open after the company paid a $25,000 fine and acquired a hospital transfer agreement, according to documents provided to Rewire by the state.

The owner of Capital Care Network, Terrie Hubbard, did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

As in every medical field, there are occasional cases of true rogues in the field of reproductive health, as Rewire reported last week. For that reason, legitimate abortion providers support meaningful regulations and inspections to ensure they are enforced. But distorting the facts does not serve the goal of ensuring safe abortion access, according to Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.

“We want abortion to be legal so that it can be safe, and so that it can be appropriately regulated,” Copeland said. “That’s why you do an inspection: so that if there are paperwork issues or, god forgive, patient safety concerns, it’s uncovered so it can be corrected.”

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”

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