First appeared in Focus on the Family’s Citizen Magazine — April 16, 2013
by Matt Kaufman
The state that produced one of the nation’s most infamous late-term abortionists now has one of its strongest pro-life laws.
When Philadelphia police and federal agents raided Kermit Gosnell’s abortion facility on suspicion of drug trafficking, they weren’t ready for what they found.
It was, in the words of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, “a house of horrors.”
Bags and bottles of fetal body parts, strewn throughout the building. Shelves lined with jars of severed feet. Cat excrement on the stairs, and the odor of feline urine everywhere. Unsterilized instruments. Disposable medical supplies, used repeatedly.
“Semi-conscious women waiting for abortions moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with blood-stained blankets,” according to a nearly 300-page grand jury report. They’d all been sedated by unlicensed staff who couldn’t say what medications or dosages had been given.
Gosnell, known on the street as the man to see for illegal, late-term abortions, routinely delivered live babies and killed them by what he called “snipping”-—cutting their necks with scissors, severing their spinal cords. He trained staffers to falsify ultrasound exams to make the baby look smaller. He had no trained nurses or medical personnel on staff; his anesthesiologist was a teenager.
Hundreds of babies likely died by “snipping” during Gosnell’s three decades at the clinic, prosecutors said. He was charged with eight counts of murder-—seven babies and one woman who died of an overdose of painkillers.
The story broke in the news two years ago, circulating widely in pro-life circles and even drawing attention in national media outlets. And recently, it surfaced again: Gosnell went on trial in early March, sparking renewed coverage. (The outcome of the trial-—expected to last two months-—was pending as Citizen went to press.)
But there’s another story that’s drawn less attention. It’s the story of how Gosnell got away with his crimes for so long, thanks to the willful neglect of state officials appeasing “pro-choice” politicians. It’s also the story of what’s happened since those crimes were exposed-—and of the people, both inside and outside Pennsylvania government, who fought to keep it from happening again.
See No Evil
Michael Geer knows the story well. A veteran family advocate, he has been president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI)-—the state’s family-policy council associated with Focus on the Family-—since 1989.
The trouble, Geer said, started when pro-life Gov. Bob Casey, a Democrat, was succeeded by two abortion-rights supporters: Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, and Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Between them, they occupied the governor’s mansion for most of the years between 1995 and 2011.
“In 15 years, not a single abortion clinic was inspected by the state,” Geer told Citizen. “That was a decision made at the highest levels of the Ridge and Rendell administrations.”
The grand jury report backs Geer up. It tells of how the health department under Ridge “decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all,” holding that “inspections would be ‘putting up a barrier to women’ seeking abortions.”
Likewise, the department’s senior counsel told the grand jury of a 1999 meeting where high-level officials refused to reinstate clinic inspections. “There was a concern that if they did these routine inspections, that they might find a lot of these facilities didn’t meet [the standards], and then there would be less abortion facilities, less access to women to have an abortion.”
Thus, repeated complaints about Gosnell went unanswered. Even when the health department learned that a woman had died at his clinic in 2009, officials refused to investigate.
It wasn’t just state officials who looked the other way. The grand jury report says “some pro-choice and women’s health groups learned from Gosnell’s patients of their frightening experiences,” but didn’t contact officials.
In 2009, Gosnell applied for membership in the National Abortion Federation (NAF), a network of abortion clinics, and was rejected because of numerous violations of basic health and safety standards. Yet the NAF never reported those violations to authorities-—a failure the grand jury found ironic, given its “stated mission … to ensure safe, legal, and acceptable abortion care, and to promote health and justice for women.”
“The bureaucracy turned a blind eye to the abortion industry,” Geer said. “Officials completely abdicated their responsibilities. And the industry wasn’t going to police itself. Clearly something had to change.”
Business as Usual?
Then came the raid on Gosnell’s clinic. And then there was no way to turn a blind eye any longer.
New Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett fired six officials whose neglect was cited in the grand jury’s report, including the acting secretary of the Department of State.
“This happened because people weren’t doing their jobs, plain and simple,” he said. Unlike some cases where government runs amok, he said, this was a case of “government not running at all.”
Corbett also ordered regulatory changes, including a requirement that freestanding abortion facilities be inspected annually, as well as being subject to random, unannounced inspections.
But since regulations and policies can change with governors, lasting reforms had to be written into laws as well. And that was a tougher task.
In the state House, a strong bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro, emerged that would hold abortion facilities to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers-—from emergency equipment and hospital admitting privileges to safe room-to-room and building specs and fire-code compliance. It also locked in regular inspections, with at least one surprise visit per year. It set up a complaint hotline, requiring the state to investigate every call.
Perhaps most important, the House bill provided that clinics lose their licenses for violating other state laws-—including the 1989 Abortion Control Act (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey), which requires a parent’s consent for a minor’s abortion, 24-hour waiting periods and informed consent.
In the Senate, however, a far weaker version emerged-—one that would do little to alter the state’s hands-off approach toward abortion facilities.
“It was just a pathetic bill,” Randall Wenger, PFI’s chief counsel, told Citizen. “In practice, it would have meant business as usual.”
Yet it looked like the Senate version might prevail. “The abortion industry was fighting back furiously, crying that they couldn’t be expected to meet the standards others met, that it would cost too much, be too much trouble,” Geer said. “They’ve got political connections, and some lawmakers weren’t inclined to rock the boat.”
PFI staffers were looking for a way to turn the tide. Ironically, though, they found that way when they weren’t even looking.
Just days before the Senate bill was scheduled for hearings, Geer and Wenger attended a fundraising banquet for the Hope Center, a pro-life pregnancy resource center serving inner-city Philadelphia. There they met an OB-GYN, Dr. Joseph Castelli, who struck them as an ideal witness to the Senate.
“The way God worked was just amazing,” Wenger said. “Joe was the perfect person to testify. He had experience dealing with miscarriages, so he knew about dilation and extraction procedures”-—the same ones used in abortions.
“And he was willing to testify. A lot of physicians wouldn’t want to drop everything and do that, but he just felt God was calling him to it.”
Castelli, though he was on call all weekend, quickly cleared his schedule for Monday.
“I looked at [the House version]and thought it was a great bill,” he told Citizen. “It covers the same kinds of procedures that I do.
“So I took the day off, put on a jacket and tie and went to the Capitol. It was a daunting experience. I’d never been there before, much less to testify.”
Nervous or not, Castelli was a major hit.
“He just laid everything out in a compelling, common-sense way,” Geer said. “He explained why all the safety standards had to be in place.”
After the testimony, Sen. Bob Mensch, vice chairman of the public health and welfare committee, approached Castelli to follow up.
He kept asking me medically oriented questions,” Castelli said. “I could see how interested he was.”
Mensch would prove to be a key ally. “Up until that point he had nobody with medical credibility making the case for stronger legislation, like the House bill,” Wenger said. “Now he’d found that someone. That gave him the inspiration to work with us to get the job done.”
Castelli, for his part, learned something from the experience, too.
“One of Gosnell’s patients was sitting to my right, testifying to what she’d gone through,” he said. “She really opened my eyes to some of the barbaric things that were going on, and just how necessary these regulations are.”
In the end, the strong abortion-clinic regulations passed and Corbett signed them into law on Dec. 22, 2011. It didn’t take long for their impact to be felt.
Just since the law passed, the number of abortion clinics in Pennsylvania has dropped from 22 to 17, with several either being turned down for a license or pre-emptively going out of business.
“That’s no coincidence,” Wenger said. “We finally have a law with teeth in it.”
And the requirement for facilities to abide by the rest of the state’s pro-life laws-—at risk of losing their licenses-—means that, from now on, all of them will be under scrutiny.
Pennsylvania’s abortion laws are the third-best of all the states, according to Americans United for Life. Those laws include parental consent, informed consent, waiting periods and restrictions on abortion funding or advocacy, among other provisions.
All that, said Geer, translates to fewer abortions and more lives saved-—the lives of babies and mothers alike.
“We work and pray to end abortions in Pennsylvania and America,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re working to save every life we can-—and to hasten the day when all human life is protected and valued.
“May that day come soon.”
To learn more about the Gosnell case, visit http://3801lancaster.com.