Women Must Be Protected From Another Gosnell

Denise Burke Vice President of Legal Affairs, Americans United for Life
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It reads like the script for a horror movie: The spinal cords of just-delivered infants “snipped” with scissors. A dying woman trapped in a “house of horrors” abortion clinic by a padlocked emergency exit, lost in the clinic’s “confusing maze of narrow hallways and multiple twisting stairways.” The pervasive smell of animal urine; furniture and blankets stained with blood; broken and inoperable medical equipment; and the remains of dozens of babies stored in jars, milk jugs, and cat food cans.

This isn’t a work of fiction. This was the evidence and eyewitness testimony that lead to the conviction of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, one year ago this month.

The shocking details of his crimes remain both vivid and horrifying. His grueling two-month trial reinvigorated the national debate over abortion and highlighted the substandard – and sometimes deadly – practices that are all too common in the profit-driven, under-regulated, and largely unaccountable abortion industry.

In just the past few months, abortion controversies have flooded the news; the New York health department’s decade-long failure to inspect many of the state’s abortion clinics, a young woman dying following a botched late-term abortion at an Ohio clinic, and of abortion facilities in Texas and elsewhere closing because they are unwilling to comply with medically appropriate standards for patient care. And the debate over abortion and the appropriate legal response to the abortion industry’s continuing malfeasance is rekindled with every sordid disclosure.

While these incidents draw attention to the need for more protective regulation, they also underscore an important, but often forgotten lesson of the Gosnell case: safeguarding women’s lives and health requires that abortion laws are consistently and properly enforced.

As the Gosnell grand jury emphasized, to prevent future abortion tragedies, state officials “must find the fortitude to enact and enforce the necessary regulations. Rules must be more than words on paper.”

When the Gosnell scandal first broke in January 2011, the “deplorable and unsanitary” conditions at his West Philadelphia abortion clinic garnered extensive attention. Receiving somewhat less consideration was the Pennsylvania health department’s willful failure to provide oversight of the state’s abortion clinics. This refusal to enforce the state’s abortion laws endangered countless women and allowed the scandalous conditions at Gosnell’s clinic and at other substandard abortion facilities to fester.

In the aftermath of the revelations about the gruesome conditions at Gosnell’s clinic and of the health department’s repeated failures, state legislators nationwide began debating more protective health and safety requirements for abortion clinics.

Over the strident objections of the abortion industry, four states, including Pennsylvania, have since adopted laws requiring abortion clinics to meet the same patient care standards as other facilities performing outpatient surgeries. However, of those states, only Alabama provides for comprehensive enforcement of these enhanced patient care standards.

In addition to his homicide convictions, Gosnell was also found guilty of 211 counts of violating Pennsylvania’s informed consent law. Pennsylvania is one of 31 states with enforceable regulations requiring that women considering abortion be provided information about abortion’s risks, consequences, and alternatives. However, a number of these states fail to provide adequate enforcement mechanisms for these common sense requirements. States with pro-abortion records like Connecticut and Maine are joined by states with stronger pro-life sentiments like Michigan in failing to sufficiently prioritize the enforcement of these medically recognized safeguards.

Clearly, in the interest of protecting women, there is an urgent need for comprehensive and quality enforcement mechanisms across the 50 states and for every abortion-related regulation and statute. And once these enforcement measures are adopted, they must be implemented.

To ensure that abortion regulations are more than mere entries in a dusty code book, Americans United for Life has developed an enforcement plan that provides states with model language designed to ensure consistent and meaningful enforcement of abortion laws. Among the enumerated options are criminal sanctions, civil fines, legal injunctions against continuing misconduct, and professional sanctions against a provider or facility’s license.

However, as was the case with Gosnell, when state officials fail or refuse to act, AUL’s plan provides a fall-back option: a unique provision that gives anyone with direct knowledge of a violation, including the women harmed, the right to sue to have protective laws properly enforced.

The Gosnell grand jury correctly found fault with repeated failures “to enforce laws that should afford patients at abortion clinics the same safeguards and assurances of quality health care as patients of other medical service providers,” noting that even nail salons “are monitored more closely” than abortion clinics.  AUL’s Enforcement Module gives legislators the necessary tools to address this glaring and inexplicable discrepancy.  Only by better prioritizing the enforcement of abortion laws will women be protected from another Kermit Gosnell.