By Larry Miller, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –
From the outside, the innocuous looking building at 3801 Lancaster Avenue was just another physician’s office in an area that has seen an upsurge of economic development during the years.
Even the name, “Women’s Medical Society” sounded impressive, suggesting a facility that cared first and foremost about its patients, most of whom, District Attorney Seth Williams said were poor African-American females and other minorities.
But, the Women’s Medical Society, run by Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is himself African-American, was anything but a clinic that cared about the women who came for help with their pregnancies. What the innocent sounding name and safe looking exterior concealed was, according to Williams, a “house of horrors.”
The conditions of the facility were deplorable, unsanitary, and filthy, Williams said. Gosnell allegedly routinely used unlicensed and untrained staff members to treat patients, administer medication, conduct medical tests, and, even worse, kill babies.
Williams said. “The majority of the women who came to Gosnell were poor women of color. White women were placed in a slightly cleaner room. On those rare occasions when the patient was a White woman from the suburbs, Gosnell insisted that he be consulted at every step. When an employee asked him why, he said it was ‘the way of the world.’”
Williams told reporters during a recent press conference that he had no words to describe the brutal and cold-blooded actions of Gosnell. Gosnell, 69, who ran the Women’s Medical Society located at 38th and Lancaster Avenue has been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder and related offenses. Williams also alleged that Gosnell, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson University caused the death of at least one patient during a botched abortion. He has been charged with 3rd degree murder in the death of Karnamaya Mongar, 41.
Most of the illegally performed late-term abortions were performed on poor Black, Hispanic, and other minority women, Williams said.
“When you perform late-term abortions by inducing labor you get babies; living, breathing, viable babies. Most babies who are born prematurely will survive, if the get appropriate medical treatment. But, that was not what the Women’s Medical Society was all about,” Williams said. “He had a simple solution for the unwanted babies he delivered. He killed them but he didn’t call it that, he called it ‘ensuring fetal demise.’ The way he ensured ‘fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called it ‘snipping.’”
According to the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Project, poor African-American women between ages 18 to 24 are most likely to have an abortion. They are either separated or unmarried and have an annual income of less than $15,000, or have Medicaid.
Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion rates showed that compared to the general population, poor women of color are almost five times as likely to have an abortion compared to their White counterparts.
“What’s the central issue surrounding this case is the need for quality healthcare across the board, not just reproductive healthcare,” said Brenda Shelton Dunston, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Project. “There is a need for African-American women to have access to medical providers who will perform a safe abortion if it’s needed. But, women of all ethnicities should not have to be concerned whether a physician will provide quality care. This case is extremely unfortunate and I think it’s particularly so in light of the fact that we’re celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King said that of all forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane. I think this case underscores that. Quality healthcare is a right, not a privilege.”
In the case of Gosnell, the Grand Jury’s investigation revealed a host of disturbing facts about the facility but perhaps the most compelling is the fact that the oversight agencies, particularly the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which should have shut down the Women’s Medical Society, didn’t.
In fact, several red flags went up about the clinic but none triggered the appropriate response.
“We deserve better and more oversight for these abortion clinics,” Williams said. “Some of them have their own standards and do exactly what they’re supposed to do. But, the Grand Jury was very upset when they learned there is more oversight for women’s hair and nail salons than for abortion clinics in Pennsylvania. The fact is that various state agencies; the Senate, appropriations, the House, and the current governor, need to investigate the Department of Health and ensure that the atrocities and barbaric medical treatment received by so many poor women in West Philadelphia does not occur again.”
According to the Grand Jury, the Pennsylvania Department of Health neglected its duty to ensure the safety and health of patients in state abortion clinics.
The investigation into Gosnell’s practices revealed that the state DOH deliberately chose to not enforce laws that should afford abortion patients quality care and appropriate safeguards.
“A significant difference exists between how DOH monitors abortion clinics and how it monitors facilities where other medical procedures are performed,” the report said. “Indeed, the department has shown an utter disregard both for the safety of women who seek treatment at abortion clinics and for the health of fetuses after they have become viable. State health officials have also shown a disregard for the laws the department is supposed to enforce. Most appalling of all, the Department of Health’s neglect of abortion patients’ safety and of Pennsylvania laws is clearly not inadvertent: It is by design.”
During the process of its investigation into Gosnell’s practices, the Grand Jury learned that several times officials at the Department of Health either stumbled upon or received complaints about problems at Gosnell’s clinic and failed to take any action to stop him.
The legion of accusations and allegations surrounding Gosnell came to light purely by accident.
On February 18, 2009 federal agents raided his clinic to break up an illegal prescription drug ring. What they found was the illegal abortion clinic with filthy and unsanitary conditions. The remains of at least 45 babies were found at the facility, Williams said, babies, who were born alive.
Also charged in the case are Lynda Williams, 42; Sherry West, 51; Adrienne Moton, 33; Steven Massof, 48; Elizabeth Hampton, 51; Eileen O’Neill, 54; Tina Baldwin, 45; Maddline Joe, 53; and Gosnell’s wife, Pearl Gosnell, 49. All are facing a host of charges including 3rd degree murder, theft by deception, conspiracy, hindering prosecution, and perjury.
In addition to being accused of murdering the babies of hundreds of poor women of color from 1979 to 2009, Gosnell and his allegedly unlicensed and untrained staff are accused of injuring and overdosing patients, spreading venereal disease by utilizing unsterilized medical equipment and perforated their wombs and bowels. At least one woman, Karnamaya Mongar, died, allegedly from an overdose of drugs during an abortion procedure she received at Gosnell’s clinic.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes said that although the gruesome activities of Gosnell and his co-defendants cannot be minimized, the broader issue surrounding the case is quality healthcare, especially for poor Black women.
“Most of Gosnell’s victims were Black women,” he said. “Women from low-income environments. While words cannot express the reprehensible nature under which Gosnell operated, the broader issue is quality healthcare, especially for low-income women. We can’t lose sight of that in the harsh light of these allegations.
Yesterday House Republicans moved to try and repeal healthcare reform, to return us to the same status quo healthcare that clearly did not serve Gosnell’s patients. My prayer is that Gosnell was the only doctor operating like this, but he might not be. We know of at least one other case where a doctor was performing abortions in one state and finishing them in another. The common denominator is low income. These women were from low-income environments where access to quality healthcare is problematic. They should not have been victimized.”
Susan Schewel, Executive Director of the Women’s Medical Fund however raised an important question — which is why any of the women who had abortions at Gosnell’s clinic went there in the first place.
“Women’s Medical Fund joins the chorus of voices that unequivocally condemn any illegal practices that occurred in that office. But, news coverage has not asked the most important question related to this story: why did women seek care there at all? Abortion is a legal common routine medical procedure. Yet for 25 years, the state of Pennsylvia has banned Medicaid funding for abortion. Abortion is the only routine medical procedure not covered by Medicaid. This prohibition on Medicaid payment for abortion leaves desperate women vulnerable to sub-standard providers,” Schewel said.
She said the Women’s Medical Fund raises money from individuals and gives it to women who have chosen an abortion but can’t afford it.
“We have never referred women to the Women’s Medical Society,” she said. “Over an eight-week period in 2010 when the Gosnell story first unfolded, I reviewed our records of the women whom we had supported who live in that same neighborhood. There were six women whose ages ranged from 21 to 36. Five were mothers. Four were enrolled in Medicaid; two had no health insurance at all. Two received unemployment checks and one had just been laid off a few days before she called. One worked at McDonald’s and earned $450/month. Two hundred dollars of that went to rent. One was obtaining a protection from abuse order against her violent husband. Another was pregnant due to a rape. One was living in a homeless shelter with her young child. She received $213 a month in welfare. The average monthly income of these six women was $503. Thankfully, all of these women sought care at high-quality abortion practices. Unconscionable public policy says if you are poor, pregnant and don’t want to be, you are out of luck and on your own. This story reminds us of the lengths to which desperate women go to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.”