Evan M. Lopez
[ consequences ]
After details emerged of West Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell and his clinic — run so poorly that Gosnell has been charged with murdering seven babies and one woman — everyone could agree on one thing: Such tragedy should never happen again.
But the agreement, it seems, ended there.
In the months since Gosnell was indicted, nearly a half-dozen legislative bills have been introduced in the state House and Senate, each meant to correct some flaw in the system that presumably allowed Gosnell to operate for so long and with so little scrutiny. One bill in particular has gained traction: a bill by state House Rep. Matt Baker that would impose the same regulations on abortion clinics as outpatient surgical centers.
Baker, a Republican who heads the House's Health Committee, says the bill would deliver unprecedented protections to women seeking abortions — and prevent future cases like Gosnell's.
But choice activists and women's health advocates see something different: They call the bill a Trojan horse, appearing on its surface to protect women but instead harboring a teeming horde of regulations and restrictions supported by anti-abortion and right-wing interests. The actual aim, these advocates say, is to shut down the state's abortion clinics.
"Their ultimate goal is make abortion inaccessible and illegal in Pennsylvania," says Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates. "It's appalling."
Somehow, this point has been all but completely lost in the public discussion. Media coverage has been scant, even here in Philly, where Gosnell's reviled practice inspired the bills.
Within the halls of the Capitol, however, tensions are hot. Last week, during a hearing on a series of similar Senate bills, anti-abortion and pro-choice groups both tried to make their points by seizing upon the same story: that of Tyhisha Hudson, who had an abortion at Gosnell's clinic in the '90s and who detailed her gruesome experience before the Senate health committee, saying she felt her "insides being ripped apart" during the procedure and "was bleeding very badly" for weeks afterward.
Hudson testified that she went to Gosnell's clinic only after discovering she couldn't afford an abortion at Planned Parenthood; one of Gosnell's employees allegedly told her the procedure would cost even less than usual if she forewent anesthesia.
Abortion foes saw Hudson's testimony as proving the state Senate should propose a bill regulating abortion clinics like outpatient surgery centers, just as Baker's House bill attempts to do.
But choice advocates saw a different moral in Hudson's tale. Hudson went to Gosnell because his services were the cheapest she could find. By tacking on more (unnecessary, they say) regulations, they say Baker's bill would significantly raise the cost of abortion — and, in turn, force more women to go to illegal providers.
The bill would impose various new requirements that pro-choice activists call unnecessary and unnecessarily costly. For example, the legislation would force clinics to always have a nurse on duty, even on days when abortions are not being performed, which apparently occur often.
"That would provide absolutely no benefit to patients," says Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney of the Women's Law Project, adding that current regulations already require a nurse to be present when abortions are taking place.
When City Paper reached Baker, he insisted the bill "will provide the highest possible level of health care and safety for women."
Another regulation would force clinics' operating rooms to be at least 400 square feet, which Baker said will provide enough space for injured patients to leave via a stretcher. "One of Gosnell's patients died while EMTs tried to remove her from the room," said Baker.
Carol Petraitis of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union counters: "The problem with Gosnell's operating room wasn't its size, but the fact that an exit door to the clinic was bolted shut."
The bottom line for opponents of the bill is that it increases the cost of abortions. Frietsche claims that cost would increase by as much as $1,000 and cost each clinic as much as $1 million, which would force most — and possibly all — of Pennsylvania's 22 clinics to shut down. Some speculate that if the bill passed, it would be as significant as the state's Abortion Control Act, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and had the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade.
At last week's hearing, the president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania voiced his support for outpatient regulations, as did an anti-abortion doctor who later told CP that he sometimes prays with his patients who are carrying unwanted pregnancies.
Baker himself acknowledges a personal opposition to abortion. Asked if that has affected his legislation, he said, "This is not a pro-life, pro-abortion issue. ... Many strict pro-life people believe we should shut all the clinics down. That's not what this bill does."
Baker also notes that the District Attorney's report on Gosnell recommended that clinics be regulated as outpatient surgery centers. But choice advocates argue the report was mainly concerned that the state Health Department inspect abortion clinics annually. They point to four proposed Senate bills that would mandate that clinics be regularly inspected but that don't call for Baker's regulations as being "way better."
Even those Senate bills, say choice advocates, have problems. Two, for instance, give the Health Department "full and free" access to abortion clinics' employees and records. That might seem reasonable, acknowledges Jen Boulanger, executive director of Allentown Women's Center, but could encourage unwarranted targeting of clinics or raise privacy issues. (The state is supposed to redact the names of employees in these public reports, as state Sen. Pat Vance, head of the Senate's health committee, pointed out, but CP found in a recent request that many names hadn't been redacted; Vance says she will "look into that.")
Choice advocates say both the proposed Senate and House bills are missing the point: Ever since news about Gosnell broke, they've argued that his case proved not that the state lacked regulations, but that those regulations were "spottily and inadequately enforced," says Frietsche.