Abortion House of Horrors: Why a Draw?

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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.

Earlier:

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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.

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Susan Schewel, executive director of the Women's Medical Fund of Philadelphia, an abortion provider, said that everyone in the area's reproductive-health care community was shocked by findings in Gosnell's clinic.

"We have excellent, high-quality health care for women seeking abortions in our area," she told The Root. "The clinics are now heavily regulated by the state to make sure they are providing safe care. The reason he was able to allegedly operate in that manner was because the state was not performing inspections at that time."

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Schewel went on to explain that abortion practices in Pennsylvania face extra regulations because of extensive opposition to the procedure by lawmakers. By and large, she explained, legislators have never viewed an abortion as a medical procedure, and the state leads the nation with some of the most imposing restrictions on abortion.

"The Gosnell espisode strengthens our resolve to make sure that women can have comprehensive coverage for pregnancy-related care," Schewel said. "When women do not have that, they are vulnerable to substandard providers like Gosnell. What we know now about women throughout history and around the globe is, they will find a way not to have a child. Legal and accessible abortion makes it safe. Making it less accessible does not decrease the number of abortions; it just increases the dangers for women. It's access to contraception that decreases the need for abortion."

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What Can Be Done to Prevent More Houses of Horror?

Jan. 22, 2013, marked the 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion throughout the nation. The decision has had a dramatic impact on women's reproductive health but still ignites strong debate that often cuts along racial lines. Reproductive health played a major role in the presidential election, with African-American women coming under heavy criticism.

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Black women obtained 40.2 percent of all pregnancy terminations in the United States in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the latest statistics available. That percentage is disproportionately higher than those of white and Hispanic women, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.

And while agencies such as the Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood attribute the higher abortion rate among blacks to a higher incidence of unintended pregnancies — pointing to a need for better access to family planning education and resources — pro-lifers argue that the rate is tied to access to the procedure. Some of those advocates include Alveda King, niece of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and activist Day Gardner, both of whom are members of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition.

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"Abortion is never OK, under any circumstance," Gardner told The Root. "It kills children and maims women. But what Gosnell is alleged to have done is especially gruesome and grotesque. Each child that was born and delivered was allowed to be free, to breathe air, to see light, and then died brutally in the hands of their executioner. I hope and pray that the jury will see him for who he is."

At least for now, pro-choice and pro-life groups have a common enemy: Kermit Gosnell, and both sides are assiduously watching for the outcome of the trial.

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Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root, editor of Diversity MBA Magazine and a contributor at NewsOne.

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