Abortion House of Horrors: Why a Draw?

It's not so baffling that poor women saw convicted murderer Dr. Kermit Gosnell when you know the law.

Kermit Gosnell (AP)
Kermit Gosnell (AP)

Updated Monday, May 13, 2013: Dr. Kermit Gosnell has been found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder for severing the spinal cords of infants born during abortions, according to the Washington Post. He was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar, who died from an overdose of drugs at Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia. He could face the death penalty.


(The Root) — The “house of horrors” recounted so far during the trial of Philadelphia abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is charged with killing a patient and seven babies in late-term abortions, highlights the lack of access to family planning for poor women of color who are faced with unwanted pregnancies, pro-choice advocates say.

The capital-murder trial, which is in its fourth week, also lays bare some of the substandard care available to poor and immigrant women and turns the spotlight on federal and state spending restrictions on the procedure, these advocates say.

Gosnell’s West Philadelphia Women’s Medical Society was a place where the spinal cords of fetuses in late-term live-birth abortions were snipped, according to the trial testimony of one of his former workers. Body parts of dead fetuses were reportedly stored in jars that lined the shelves of the dirty and unsanitary clinic.

Women and teens from across the mid-Atlantic, often seeking late-term abortions, flocked to Gosnell’s clinic, New York’s Daily News reports. Another worker testified during the trial that she recalled seeing at the clinic a young woman from Puerto Rico who did not speak English and appeared to be 27 weeks pregnant. The limit for an abortion in Pennsylvania is 24 weeks. In yet another case, a 41-year-old refugee died after an overdose of drugs was allegedly given to her during a 2009 abortion. Gosnell’s wife, Pearl, is among eight workers expected to testify during the trial.

Why Would Women Turn to Gosnell?

The national cost for first-term abortions hovers at about $450 and increases weekly as the pregnancy progresses. The procedure can be done legally between six and 24 weeks, depending on where women live. When poor women, many of whom are single parents, work minimum wage jobs, pinch pennies and are racing against the clock, the cost can rise to more than $1,000 if they have difficulty raising money within the first trimester, advocates say. And there is very little available in the way of financial assistance.

Passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal Medicaid funding from being used for abortion procedures. Under the law, women with Medicaid as their health insurance can use it for an abortion only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or represents a danger to their health.

States, however, are free to use their own dollars to help patients pay for services. Seventeen states — including Hawaii, Maryland and Washington — currently do so, according to the Guttmacher Institute (pdf), a sexual- and reproductive-health think tank based in New York. Thirty-two states — including Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho and Pennsylvania — and Washington, D.C., follow the federal standard to the letter of the law and do not provide additional funding.

“Because of racial inequalities in income in the U.S.,” said Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the Boston-based National Network of Abortion Funds, which advocates for abortion laws and provides funding for women, “poor women of color are more likely to be enrolled in Medicaid and therefore are disproportionately and severely harmed by restrictions on Medicaid coverage of abortion.”

Poggi told The Root that every year, her fund receives requests for help from more than 110,000 women but is able to help only approximately 26,000. In Philadelphia, some women sought out Gosnell’s services for late-second-trimester and illegal third-trimester abortions, which can cost up to $5,000. Pro-choice advocates say that less than 1.5 percent of women who are seeking to end pregnancies pursue late-term abortions, however.