State ignored complaints about Philadelphia abortion clinic

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceFebruary 9, 2011 

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Dazed and drugged women giving birth in toilets, a 15-year-old working as an anesthesiologist and freezers leaking blood.

And worst of all, state inspectors who turned a blind eye to it all.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and his staff delivered these details in a searing blow Tuesday against two state agencies charged with protecting the health and welfare of the most vulnerable.

Testifying before a state Senate joint committee meeting, Williams laid out a case of a massive "system failure" by the Departments of State and Health which he said ignored years of complaints and allowed the abortion clinic run by a doctor now charged with murder to operate unchecked for almost two decades.

Williams and his top deputies told the hearing that had any state official followed up on a single piece of the voluminous amount of evidence suggesting wrongdoing, or set foot in the filthy clinic, it would have immediately been shut down.

Kermit Gosnell, whose Women's Medical Society was closed only after federal drug agents raided it last February, along with 10 co-defendants, is charged in the deaths of seven babies and a 41-year-old female patient.

In a 261-page report released last month, a Philadelphia grand jury found that Gosnell routinely severed the spinal cords of near full-term babies born alive. Gosnell is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Prosecutors say the clinic, which served primarily low-income and minority patients on a cash-only basis netted Gosnell at least $1.8 million a year.

Responding to a question from state Sen. Bob Mensch about whether he thought culture played a role in the absence of enforcement, Williams nodded in agreement.

"It would not have gone on so long," said Williams. "If the clinic had been located five miles away in Montgomery County, in the nice suburbs of Philadelphia, someone would have heeded the calls."

When federal agents executed a search warrant at the clinic on Feb. 18 as part of an illegal prescription drug probe, the grim picture of Gosnell's operation became clear. They found a warren of filthy rooms wreaking of cat urine and feces, bloodstained walls and bloody blankets, women "walking around like zombies" and fetal parts in bottles.

"Lack of oversight allowed these horrific conditions to exist," said Williams.

More revelations at the hearing included that some unidentified state officials involved with the case, but who have not been charged with any crime, are billing taxpayers six figures and counting for outside counsel and are no longer cooperating with prosecutors.

Two state Senate committee leaders, horrified at the grisly details of the clinic, said they would convene hearings within weeks before the state's Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee and Public Health and Welfare committees and subpoena, if necessary, former and current state employees.

"All systems failed," said state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, chairman of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, which oversees the state Board of Medicine. "It was total incompetence."

Tomlinson, whose family operates a funeral home in Bensalem, Pa., said he was stunned that the clinic had gone uninspected for 17 years when nail salons and barber shops and his funeral business gets inspected at least once a year.

Ann Ponterio, chief of the homicide unit in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, said state officials who appeared before the grand jury last year were "dismissive" of the allegations against Gosnell and are no longer cooperating in what she described as an ongoing investigation into the clinic's operations.

She said outside attorneys have been hired to represent several officials with the Department of State and Health at a cost to taxpayers of $116,000 so far.

Gov. Tom Corbett, speaking at a Capitol news conference — his first since taking office Jan. 18 — said he was unaware of the agencies' hiring outside counsel since it happened before he took office.

Corbett said he has directed the acting agency heads at the departments of health and state to prepare reports on the clinic case and would comment further when the reports are released.

State Sen. Pat Vance, chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, which oversees the Department of Health, and state Sen. Vincent Hughes are among the lawmakers drafting legislation to ensure the safety of patients at abortion clinics, among them are bills that would mandate regular inspections of abortion clinics, increase penalties for practicing medicine without a license and require agencies to make information available to other agencies.

""We owe it to the victims," said state Sen. Richard A. Kasunic. "There must be accountability. There must be justice. There must be change."

(Worden reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service