It takes one bad abortion clinic...

The state of a Philadelphia facility draws national attention, at the expense of safe, legal providers

Published February 24, 2010 11:37PM (EST)

A Philadelphia medical facility has been shut down by the Pennnsylvania Department of State's Board of Medicine, following a raid in which federal agents found conditions at the clinic "deplorable and unsanitary." The Associated Press reports that the clinic's lone doctor, Kermit Gosnell, has had his license suspended temporarily. An employee alleges that Gosnell instructed her to perform procedures and administer medications, despite her lack of a medical license. The doctor has been the target of multiple complaints and malpractice suits. There are questions surrounding the Nov. 20 death of a woman who was given two doses of painkillers and anesthesia prior to surgery. So far, no charges have been filed.

It's a sad and troubling story, but quite frankly, not the kind that would ordinarily make national news. A 2009 investigation by Hearst newspapers and television stations found that "all of the available research indicates that the death toll from preventable medical injuries approaches 200,000 per year in the United States" -- tragic errors happen every day. Undoubtedly, so do health and safety violations and license suspensions. So why are we hearing about this one? Because one of the services Dr. Gosnell's clinic provided was abortion, and as the AP story notes in its opening lines, those "deplorable and unsanitary conditions" included "blood on the floor and parts of aborted fetuses in jars."

The evidence against Gosnell fits neatly into an anti-choice narrative that casts abortion providers as soulless ghouls with no regard for patients' safety or the law. Days after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, for instance, anti-choice writer Jill Stanek posted pictures of abortion provider Dr. LeRoy Carhart's clinic in an Omaha suburb and declared that "no self-respecting bonafide doctor would step foot in Carhart's filthy mill." Never mind that Carhart is licensed to practice medicine in seven states and has enough self-respect that he's refused to let decades of harassment and threats from anti-choice zealots stop him from helping women. And never mind that, presumably, Stanek has never been inside the clinic. Why would any of that stop her from implying that Carhart is not a real doctor or that his medical facilities are unsanitary? The Internet and conservative media are awash with inflammatory rhetoric that paints abortion providers as sociopathic monsters, regardless of the facts. As Gabriel Winant reported for Salon, Bill O'Reilly has described the late Dr. Tiller's legal -- and, by numerous accounts, deeply compassionate -- work as morally equivalent to all of the following: NAMBLA, al-Qaida, Mao's China, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. You get the picture.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes doctors who provide abortions do behave unethically, bizarrely and unforgivably, and Gosnell seems to be one of them. And even though physicians of every stripe cross legal and ethical boundaries, the existing stigma surrounding abortion providers -- the notion that doctors offering safe, legal medical procedures are "baby killers" operating out of "filthy mills" -- combined with some especially gruesome details means that a story like this is bound to catch fire. "The media knows that anything about abortion is going to get attention," said Rivka Gordon, director of strategic initiatives for the Association of Reproductive Healthcare Professionals, in a phone interview today. And the problem with focusing on stories like this is that it casts even more suspicion on dedicated doctors operating within increasingly restrictive laws.

Obviously, said Gordon, "All clinics need to maintain a standard of care." But "abortion clinics, if they fail to meet that standard, the findings are going to be sensationalized -- and it filters into the whole field of abortion care, which is tragic beyond just the situation of the single clinic. We do not need more sensationalism and increased stigma around a procedure that is uniformly safe and very needed by a large number of women and their families in this country."

Carole Joffe, author of "Dispatches From the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us," agrees. This seems to be the "story of a medical practice gone horribly wrong," she told me, "but it is not a story about the current status of abortion care." For one thing, she notes, "This clinic offered a range of medical services, not just abortions." Furthermore, although she acknowledges that there is a very small number of "rogue abortion providers" operating in the U.S. -- she points to unlicensed sisters Raquel and Bertha Bugarin, who "were so much like pre-Roe ... they really were back-alley butchers" -- Joffe stresses that "the overwhelming majority of abortion clinics are not like this, even with the enormous obstacles abortion providers face with respect to regulations, with respect to protestors, and all the things that we're familiar with. Abortion care in this country is strikingly safe."

And it is strikingly safe precisely because we are post-Roe. Access to legal, high-quality abortion care has saved countless women from undergoing surgery in conditions like those found at Gosnell's clinic, or from suffering at the hands of "butchers" like the Bugarins. So if anti-choice crusaders were really concerned about women's health 0r abortion providers operating in "filthy mills," then instead of conflating compassionate, committed physicians with a few true rogues who absolutely deserve to be shut down and prosecuted, they would be pushing for all women to have greater access to the full range of reproductive healthcare options. I won't hold my breath. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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