Jury selection started yesterday in the capital murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with the deaths of a pregnant woman under his care and seven viable babies—who he allegedly killed by severing their spinal cords after they were delivered alive. For nearly four decades, Gosnell ran his crude abortion clinic out of a nondescript building in West Philadelphia, and there is copious evidence that the crimes for which he is charged are culled from a much longer list of misdeeds he committed while trolling for profits among the city’s poor and downtrodden.
It takes a strong stomach to read the Grand Jury report charging Gosnell with his crimes—which I did, against my better judgement, when it was released to the public in January 2011. I can recall the horror I felt at the sight of the photos—too gruesome to recount—and the reports of flea-infested treatment rooms, blood-stained walls, floors covered in cat feces, and handwritten cheat sheets of rudimentary narcotic “cocktails” delivered to patients by an assistant who was not even old enough to legally drive. The grotesque physical conditions inside Gosnell’s “house of horrors” are compounded by the utter disregard the physician seemed to have for his patients. Witnesses describe Gosnell as a penny-pinching absentee owner with a short fuse and a willingness to flaunt even the most basic medical guidelines in the pursuit of a buck.
But, if you can get past the sensational, stomach-turning details of the case, there is an important message to be drawn from the story of Kermit Gosnell and the women he harmed. Abortion foes cite the Gosnell horror story as evidence of the failure of legalized abortion, but I see it as evidence of its success—and a warning of what can, and does, go wrong when states place undo restrictions on women’s access to safe and low-cost abortions.
There was nothing legal about the procedures Kermit Gosnell was performing, or the way in which he was performing them. But prior to 1973, there was little to distinguish his crude modus operandi from a more competent abortion practitioner. Why? Because under the law, they were one and the same.
The decades when abortion was illegal represent a dark history that many people—particularly those who would like to go back to those days—would just as soon forget. Prior to Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court ruled it illegal for states to enact laws prohibiting safe access to abortion in a medical setting, the procedure was routinely carried out in conditions far worse than those found in Gosnell’s clinic; and renegade abortionists regularly plied their trade with little to no regard for the health of the mother and, obviously, nothing to stop them from terminating pregnancies well into the third trimester. (Dorothy Fadiman’s moving 1992 documentary, When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories, offers a glimpse into this world. In 1962, Fadiman almost died after paying an anonymous practitioner $600 for an illegal abortion. She was blindfolded through the entire process.)
Then, as now, laws restricting abortion hit poor women the hardest. If you were wealthy, it wasn’t hard to find a sympathetic doctor who could safely end your pregnancy—for the right price. Many women also found help through underground networks—the most well known being the Jane Collective. Founded by women, the group operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973, and provided an estimated 12,000 safe abortions on a sliding-scale fee out of private apartments with no known fatalities.
While many illegal abortions were provided by competent hands, women who were less well off, or were isolated from word-of-mouth networks like Jane, were often forced to improvise, either by paying a quack to conduct the procedure or doing so themselves.
Waldo Fielding, a retired Boston-based obstetrician and gynecologist details the variety of crude implements women regularly used to self induce abortions:
The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous “coat hanger”—which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth. In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. However, not simply coat hangers were used. Almost any implement you can imagine had been and was used to start an abortion—darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off.”
Amateur abortionists also injected toxic substances into women’s uteruses, or sold dangerous abortion-inducing douches, made from Lysol and Clorox.
While it’s impossible to know how many women died trying to illegally end their pregnancies during the years prior to Roe, the number was most likely in the thousands per year. According to the World Health Organization, 68,000 women still die each year as a result of complications from unsafe induced abortions, most of them in the developing world.
Abortion may be legal in the U.S., but efforts are under way in state legislatures across the country that make it harder each year for women seeking to safely end their pregnancies. According to the pro-life news outlet lifenews.com, thanks largely to the efforts of the anti-choice movement, roughly 1,500 abortion clinics have closed since 1991, and an average of seven abortion clinics a month shut their doors last year. Five states—Arkansas, Mississippi, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota—have only a single provider. Meanwhile, more subtle restrictions, such as a ban on using state Medicaid dollars to subsidize abortions for low-income women (Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that enforce such a ban) and laws requiring parental consent for girls seeking abortions, continue to push women to the fringes of the medical world for care that can and should be provided by a competent, caring professional. If the Gosnell case reveals anything worth remembering, it’s that we can no longer tolerate circumstances that allow our mothers, sisters and daughters to fall into the hands of a butcher.