On Gosnell and the Stigma of Abortion

This week, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams released a grand jury report [PDF] about the allegedly unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the Women’s Medical Society, an abortion clinic in West Philadelphia run by Kermit Gosnell. The report states that Gosnell and other staff members were responsible for the deaths of at least two female patients and seven infants. The report also details the gruesome practices that apparently took place there, including untrained personnel giving patients anesthesia, staff members performing abortions illegal under the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, and filthy conditions at the clinic.

A change in the law would likely not have stopped Gosnell. He was breaking the law, according to the grand jury report, and performing abortions well beyond the limit of what the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act allows, under substandard conditions.

The grand jury report notes that for decades, other abortion providers and patients reported Gosnell’s clinic to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, but no action was taken to shut down the clinic. The report also refers to the excellent medical care, safety protocols and standards of care that Planned Parenthood and NAF providers adhere to that “are, in many ways, more stringent and more protective of women’s safety than” the abortion regulations in Pennsylvania.

In many ways, what allegedly happened at this clinic is a result of what happens when abortion has been so stigmatized in the United States. For example, the report states that the women and girls who went to Gosnell’s clinic were primarily low-income women of color. Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans, will not pay for abortion procedures in Pennsylvania except in very rare circumstances. This restriction on funding, however, does not stop low-income women from needing abortion care. And when their health insurance will not cover the procedure, these women are often forced to compromise their health and safety and find marginal providers who will perform abortions for the lowest price.

Abortion has become so stigmatized that possibly the women and girls who went to Gosnell’s clinic simply thought that what they found there – according to the grand jury report, flea-ridden cats and litterboxes in procedure rooms and blood-stained recliners and blankets – was the standard of abortion care. But it’s not. The National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood Federation of America hold their clinics to high professional and medical standards. In fact, Gosnell applied to become a NAF-approved clinic and the application was denied because the clinic did not live up to the quality of care NAF requires from its members. NAF has released a statement about what a quality provider of abortion care looks like, and we encourage everyone to read through it and pass it along.

The grand jury report has already been used by abortion opponents to further their agenda of banning legal access to abortion in the United States. But banning abortion or adding new restrictions to accessing the procedure will not stop it from happening; it would just increase the likelihood of unsafe, unsanitary clinics like Gosnell’s springing up. As the Guttmacher Institute explains:

Indeed, abortion occurs at roughly equal rates in regions where it is broadly legal and in regions where it is highly restricted. The key difference is safety—illegal, clandestine abortions cause significant harm to women, especially in developing countries.

Policymakers and regulatory agencies should work on correcting the inaction by state agencies that allowed Gosnell’s clinic to operate even after dozens of complaints were filed against him. Meanwhile, advocates and providers should continue to speak openly about the importance of de-stigmatizing abortion and expanding access to high-quality abortion care through health insurance coverage and community education about what a good provider looks like. Only when abortion is treated as a necessary component of women’s health care – which it is, since one in three American women will have an abortion at some point in their lives – can we hope for a day when what allegedly happened at this West Philadelphia clinic doesn’t happen again.

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3 Responses to On Gosnell and the Stigma of Abortion

  1. Pingback: Call Your State Rep Today: NO on HB 574 | Women's Law Project Blog

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  3. Lisa Weikel says:

    Glad to see the WLP addressing this horrendous discovery in Philadelphia. As soon as I heard the news, I knew it would be used to bludgeon abortion care overall, without recognizing precisely the facts you address in this post.

    Laws that prohibit low income women from accessing safe, medically responsible abortion (*which is legal in PA through the first trimester) by refusing to allow their medical assistance to cover it (except in extremely rare circumstances) is a substantial factor in driving these women to “doctors” such as the murderous hack recently indicted.

    Women who were vulnerable to begin with were further outrageously victimized by this butcher. The women who felt they had no other option but to go to that “clinic” almost certainly did not know any better. I would be willing to wager anyone that these women went to that clinic because they felt completely trapped, totally alone, entirely unable to care for another mouth to feed (as they probably live extremely meager lives as it is), and more desperate than any person should ever have to feel.

    I would also wager that most, if not all, of these women would have had a LEGAL abortion (and thus had the “luxury” of having the procedure performed at a Planned Parenthood or other impeccably run, extremely safe and sanitary, and compassionate facility) in the first trimester, had they been able to afford it (i.e., if their medical assistance would have covered it).

    The ugly truth about this horrific scenario is that anyone who might take the time to speak to any of the women who felt compelled to go to Gosnell’s “clinic” would almost certainly discover stories of abject poverty, homelessness, neglect, abuse, and other circumstances that would certainly justify a woman in deciding she is not at a place in her life where she is capable of bringing (and sustaining) a baby into the world. They would also almost certainly NOT find women who have enough money to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, who have even a modicum of education, or who are otherwise not in a position of being exploited at every turn.

    I could go on, but suffice it to say, again, that I’m grateful to the WLP for addressing the misunderstandings and gross generalizations being promoted by those who would use the heinous acts of this so-called physician to justify the further disempowerment and victimization of our most at-risk women.

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