In Remembrance: Illegal Abortion Kills

Tuesday, October 18th, Pittsburgh pro-choice advocates marched on the office of Senator Jane Orie, one of the PA Senate’s strongest supporters of the dangerous SB 732, which could put most of Pennsylvania’s abortion clinics out of existence by legislating compliance with unnecessary and expensive Ambulatory Surgical Facility (ASF) guidelines. Unlike the lively We’ve Had Enough rally in Harrisburg, the Pittsburgh protest was somber. Its aim was to remind Senator Orie how many women have perished from desperate measures taken when safe, sanely-regulated abortion was not accessible.

The National Organization for Women lists brief biographies for some of these women on their website.  Clara Bell Duval, a Pittsburgh native with five children, died in 1929 from self-abortion with a knitting needle. Geraldine Santoro, separated from her abusive husband and pregnant by another man, tried to perform the procedure in a hotel room with the father of her child, and bled to death. In 1977, soon after the passage of the Hyde Amendment which denied abortion coverage to women on Medicaid, Rosie Jiminez died from a botched illegal abortion, too poor to afford the procedure at a private clinic.

To this list we can now add Karnamaya Mongar, the 41-year-old Nepalese refugee with whose murder the infamous Dr. Kermit Gosnell is charged. Mongar allegedly died from an overdose of anesthesia at the hands of an unlicensed employee at Gosnell’s unsafe, unsanitary, and poorly monitored “Women’s Medical Society.”

Dr. Gosnell  allegedly sold prescription drugs during the day and performed illegal abortions at night, primarily for clients who were poor, immigrants, and women of color. For over 16 years the Health Department ignored complaints about the facility, including a hand-delivered complaint from a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The Health Department and other regulating agencies had cause to be concerned about Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, but they did not investigate repeated complaints from patients and other providers.

The problem with Dr. Gosnell’s clinic was not the lack of regulations, but the lack of enforcement of those regulations.  The Pennsylvania legislature, rather than improving inspection procedures and ensuring that consumer complaints are appropriately investigated and acted upon, is using Dr. Gosnell as an excuse to push for unnecessary and cumbersome regulations that could effectively close down most freestanding abortion clinics in Pennsylvania.

SB 732, Pennsylvania’s “answer” to Dr. Gosnell’s house of horrors, would require all health facilities that offer abortion care to comply with Ambulatory Surgical Facility regulations. These complicated and expensive regulations have the potential to shut down nearly every freestanding abortion clinic in the state of Pennsylvania at least temporarily, and only those with the resources to redesign their facilities in accordance with ASF regulations – such as quadrupling the size of their operating rooms for no added safety benefit, and installing unnecessary hospital-grade elevators capable of lifting the equivalent of a small car – would be able to reopen. Those surviving clinics would have to increase the cost of an abortion out of reach of many women.

Karnamaya Mongar didn’t die because the elevators in Gosnell’s clinic were too small. She died because the regulations already in place were ignored.  If the cost of a safe, legal abortion increases or the number of safe providers decreases as a result of SB 732, stories like Mongar’s will become a lot more common in our state. Making abortion harder to access for all women is, to paraphrase David Bowie, like fighting fire with gasoline. These regulations are a backdoor tactic to severely limit abortion care, a hypocritical and disingenuous response to the atrocities allegedly committed by Dr. Gosnell. 

The heartbreaking stories of Clara Duval, Geraldine Santoro, Rosie Jiminez and now Karnamaya Mongar send a message that ought to be loud and clear: when safe abortion care is made illegal, unaffordable, or too difficult to access, women who are desperate to end their pregnancies seek other options, as dangerous or unsavory as they might be because the alternative—remaining pregnant—is untenable.   Far too often, those women die. It is our responsibility to remember their lives as we continue to fight for fair, reasonable reproductive health care legislation. Learn more about SB 732 here.


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