House of Horrors at Philly Abortion Clinic Inflames Debate

Illustration for article titled House of Horrors at Philly Abortion Clinic Inflames Debate

The grisly murders and gruesome discoveries inside Kermit B. Gosnell's West Philadelphia abortion clinic leave one wondering what would make mostly poor, minority women so desperate that they would utilize his filthy clinic, where body parts of dead fetuses allegedly were stored in jars that lined the shelves of the macabre scene.


On Jan. 19, a grand jury released findings of its investigation into criminal wrongdoing by Gosnell, 69, at his Women's Medical Society clinic, according to a statement from the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

The investigation was launched after drug agents and Philadelphia police raided the clinic and learned of the death of an abortion patient. The patient had suffered cardiac arrest after Gosnell's employees allegedly administered lethal doses of narcotics. At least two are charged with impersonating physicians.

"Gosnell staffed his decrepit and unsanitary clinic entirely with unlicensed personnel, let them practice medicine on unsuspecting patients, unsupervised, and directed them to heavily drug patients in his absence," the district attorney's office's statement said. Gosnell's wife, Pearl, is charged as a co-conspirator.

Additionally, Gosnell has been charged with performing abortions beyond the 24-week limit prescribed by law and was charged with eight counts of murder for the deaths of his patient and seven live babies.

The case has ratcheted up the rhetoric in the already highly contentious abortion debate. Anti-abortion activists strenuously argue that the Gosnell case illustrates why abortions are reprehensible and should not be permitted at all, regardless of when they occur, whether at six weeks or 24 weeks. Meanwhile, pro-choice advocates argue that Gosnell was an anomaly who needed to be stopped. Their fear is that the case will lead to a return to dangerous, back-alley abortions.

"He [Gosnell] was an exception to the rule," Rachel K. Jones, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual- and reproductive-health think tank based in New York, told The Root. "He is not representative of the typical abortion doctor."


Ryan Bomberger, an anti-abortion activist who is chief creative officer of the Radiance Foundation, argues that pro-choice activists are not acting out of a concern for human life. His organization is responsible for the wildly controversial anti-abortion billboard campaign that has appeared nationwide, from Atlanta to Milwaukee to Los Angeles.

"It's feigned outrage about the conditions," Bomberger told The Root. "Their position is that women should have safe and clean environments to kill their unborn children. The only thing they care about is whether a girl chooses abortion."


The WMF had been advising women for more than a decade to avoid Gosnell's services. But some sought him out for late-second-trimester and illegal third-trimester abortions, which can cost up to $5,000. The group says that less than 1.5 percent of women seeking to terminate pregnancies pursue late-term abortions.

"A lot of women resort to what we call 'chasing the fee,' which is when the cost increases as they try to earn or raise money to pay for the abortion," Susan Schewel, executive director of the WMF, told The Root. "A lot of them do not know that as the number of weeks increases, the cost increases."


Bomberger said he is pleased that Gosnell is being prosecuted. Overall, African-American women account for 36.4 percent of all pregnancy terminations in the United States, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC and many pro-choice advocates attribute the higher abortion rate among blacks to a higher incidence of unintended pregnancies. But Bomberger and other pro-life supporters accuse the pro-choice system of genocide, claiming that Planned Parenthood and organizations like it often coax African-American women into getting abortions.


Bomberger argues that there is a proliferation of abortion clinics in black neighborhoods. Because of that, he says, African-American fetuses are more endangered by abortion than those of any other demographic in America; the pregnancies of African-American women, he claims, are three times more likely than those of white women to be terminated by abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute, however, recently released statistics from a 2008 survey demonstrating that 63 percent of all abortion clinics were located in predominantly white neighborhoods; 12 percent in predominantly Latino neighborhoods; and 9 percent in neighborhoods where more than half of the residents were black.


"The claims from the right that these clinics target black women are false," the institute's Jones said. "They are very good at ignoring the facts."

"When groups on the left say that abortion lifts women out of poverty, it's not true," Bomberger said. "We say it only increases poverty because of a culture of kicking men out as heads of household. Many of these homes end up headed by struggling single mothers. But the left is conflicted now. How can they distance themselves from this incident, the very act that allows them to profit from abortions and enables their existence?"


Both sides agree, however, that all too often, women end up at the doors of clinics like Gosnell's out of poverty, misinformation and fear.

"Because of the Medicaid ban on abortion funding and state restrictions, poor women in the state and in Philadelphia really face horrific choices about what to do if they have an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, or a pregnancy that poses significant health problems," Rose Corrigan, a professor of politics and law at Drexel University, told AlterNet news. "So what I've seen is that women often shop around for abortion services. Women are so poor that a few dollars really make a difference."


It's not likely to get any easier for poor women seeking abortions. Last week the House passed a bill to restrict access to federal funding for abortion. Currently under the Hyde Amendment, funding is available only in cases of rape, incest or harm to a woman's life. Now House Republicans want to "redefine" rape with a bill that allows for federal funding of abortions only in cases of "forcible rape," where clear physical force was used. If passed, the bill will deny abortion coverage in cases of incest, statutory rape or when a woman "just" said no.

"As access becomes more limited, we are likely to see more providers like Gosnell," Schewel told The Root, likening Gosnell's clinic to pre-Roe v. Wade facilities. "It's disturbing."


Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.