Kermit Gosnell and the Anti-Abortion Movement's Intelligence Failure

An anti-abortion group says it spent 20 years praying outside his clinic. Why didn't any of the women tell them what was going on?
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Philadelphia Police Department via Philadelphia D.A. Office

In a March piece for the Huffington Post, Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Carol E. Tracy, the executive director of the Women's Law Project, wrote that one reason that poor minority women went to Kermit Gosnell's house of horrors was that they were driven there by fear of anti-abortion protestors outside Planned Parenthood facilities in Philadelphia. They cite the story of one woman, Davida Clarke Johnson, who said "the picketers out there, they just scared me half to death," leading her to turn to Gosnell in 2001. "[P]rotesters (ironically) were not an issue" at Gosnell's clinic, Michelman and Tracy write. Amanda Marcotte repeated the charge in Slate Monday.

Intrigued by the accusation, I reached out to Edel Finnegan, director of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, which runs the anti-abortion protests in the city, according to other groups involved in the abortion fight in the state.

Finnegan refuted the report and confirmed that Gosnell's Women's Medical Society was in fact on the Pro-Life Union's radar for decades, and was not exempted from its picketing or prayer. "We were involved with praying outside of the Gosnell facility. For about 20 years, there was a group of people going out on the second Saturday of the month" to area abortion facilities, she told me.

That makes the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia perhaps the single longest-standing regular outside observer of Gosnell's clinic, which was last inspected by state authorities in 1993 before a Feb. 18, 2010, raid on it by an FBI team going after what it thought was an illegal prescription mill uncovered the dire conditions at the abortion facility located on the same site. "Every Saturday morning," clinic neighbor Bill Baumann said in the Gosnell documentary 3801 Lancaster, "the priests and the antiabortionists were out front praying the rosary."

But just because Finnegan and her team would spend Saturdays praying outside the facility doesn't mean she ever got any sense of what went on there. "Were we aware of the specific and grave horror that was going on at the Gosnell facility? No," she said. Despite Pro-Life Union members' attempts to engage women going for appointments with Gosnell or at the Planned Parenthood facilities in the Philadelphia area that provide abortions (the majority of Planned Parenthood offices that serve the area don't), Finnegan's group never got clear information from the women about their experiences or any kind of comparative picture of the facilities.

And as far as she is concerned, every abortion clinic is a house of horrors, full stop, meaning that Gosnell's was no different: "What's happening at this abortion facility, it's happening at every abortion facility."

Nor did the group pull public (such as court) records of complaints against Gosnell, which might have allowed anti-abortion advocates to see the pattern state regulatory authorities were ignoring, despite repeated complaints from doctors and Gosnell's victims. "Groups like Operation Rescue have the manpower to investigate clinics. Most pro-life groups don't have that kind of manpower. We're there to offer women an alternative," she said. The problems with the clinic were "apparently known in the neighborhood, but I wouldn't necessarily know that."

Operation Rescue, the Kansas-based national anti-abortion group, keeps a list of every abortion clinic in the country, according to Senior Policy Adviser Cheryl Sullenger. And while she said that it does a great deal of work investigating abortion-providing facilities and filing third-party complaints against them, when it came to Gosnell, "He was kind of under the radar. In fact most of the pro-lifers didn't ever realize he was conducting the kind of business that he was." She blamed the fact that he conducted most of his pregnancy terminations late at night or on Sundays, and said Operation Rescue first became aware of his abuses "when the FBI raided his clinic." Added Sullenger, "We were aware of his clinic, we just didn't know what was going on there."

This enormous communications gap between the different communities of people who wanted for years to put Gosnell out of business is likely a result of the major cultural and values gap between anti-abortion activists and the poor minority women whose desperation Gosnell exploited. "The stigma against abortion creates this silence," said Charlotte Taft, director of the Abortion Care Network, on a Tuesday conference call arranged by RH Reality Check. It "makes women who go to clinics like this not blow their own whistle."

Finnegan, for her part, blames the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers in North America, for not reporting Gosnell to authorities after inspecting his facilities. "The National Abortion Federation knew how bad things were in the Gosnell facility. We did not," she told me. It's a fair point -- though it's also worth noting that Gosnell only reached out to NAF and asked for an inspection after the November 2009 death of Karnamaya Mongar, making the group a pretty late comer on the scene. He was shut down by state authorities less than two months after NAF rejected his application. NAF did its inspection on Dec. 14 and 15, 2009, and rejected Gosnell's application on January 4, 2010. The clinic was raided on Feb. 18 of that year and Gosnell's license was suspended on Feb. 22.

It's self-evident why Gosnell did not apply for NAF membership earlier, during the many years the Pro-Life Union was praying outside his unmonitored, unregulated, and law-breaking clinic, which performed abortions past the point of viability and used a medical procedure for them (and for legal second-trimester abortions) that he appears to have made up himself.

According to the state charges against him, he used these unusual protocols, administered by unlicensed staff, to deliver heavily-drugged premature infants, whose necks he would then snip. He developed this technique after trying and failing to master more commonly used abortion methods. "This particular procedure is nowhere in the medical literature. This technique that he does is nowhere in the lexicon of practice in abortion care," noted Tracy Weitz, an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, on the RH Reality Check call.

"Despite Gosnell's best efforts to alter his practices, clean up the facility, and hire licensed personnel for our site visit, his facility was not even close to meeting NAF's quality standards. We therefore rejected his application for membership. We absolutely did not observe the egregious criminal activity that has been alleged," Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of NAF, said in a statement.

Amid the extraordinary cavalcade of system failures that allowed Gosnell to operate as he did, it's an open question whether the anti-abortion movement could have done more to call attention to his abuses if it had been able to forge any kinds of bonds of trust with the abortion-seeking women who were injured by him. Finnegan rejected that premise. "We are not responsible for the abortion industry or what goes on there," she said. 

It's a hard argument to make 40 years after Roe, during which the nature of abortion services in the United States have been shaped by the political opposition to them more than any single other factor. In the wake of the Gosnell scandal, renewed anti-abortion activism in Pennsylvania led to legislation requiring abortion-providing facilities to be licensed as ambulatory surgery centers; Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into law in December 2011, and it went into effect last summer.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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