The West Philadelphia abortion clinic at the center of a grand jury investigation operated for nearly 17 years without a single inspection from the state Department of Health, according to the grand jury report from Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
WHYY/Newsworks tried to find out why.
In Pennsylvania, abortion clinics are regulated differently than other health centers that perform surgery. The rules for clinic oversight changed when Tom Ridge succeeded Bob Casey as governor.
Pennsylvania decided for “political reasons” to stop inspecting abortion clinics unless there was a complaint, the report said. Witnesses told the grand jury that Pennsylvania officials “concluded that regular inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up to women’ seeking abortions.”
But today, that policy change mystifies abortion-rights advocates.
“No one ever came to them, nor did they lobby for less regulation. There’s no history of that whatsoever,” said Carol Tracy. She leads the Women’s Law Project which provides legal counsel to abortion-rights groups in the city.
“Abortion clinics say: ‘Don’t over regulate us, treat us as a medical facility.’ That is what we are,” she said.
Tracy says the unequal oversight of abortion clinics allowed a West Philadelphia doctor to operate an unsafe and unsanitary practice for decades. Kermit Gosnell is facing murder charges.
Tracy says Planned Parenthood and other providers of high-quality care are certified by the National Abortion Federation, which, she says, has more rigorous standards than Pennsylvania’s rules.
Tracy speculates that abortion foes in government have been so focused on making abortion illegal that they shirked their responsibly to protect women’s health.
“This is a medical procedure. If plastic surgeons got annual inspections, there’s no reason that abortions clinics wouldn’t have annual inspections,” she said.
Meanwhile, some are asking why Philadelphia didn’t take action as complaints piled up against Gosnell.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz says state officials hold the reins on physicians’ licenses and facility inspections.
“We have no ability to fine, we have no ability to close down, we have no ability to change practice. We have no ability to remove a license,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz says he wants to reassure Philadelphia women that the lapses at the Lancaster Avenue clinic are not the usual practice in the city.
He says city officials will step up their communication with Harrisburg when Philadelphians have concerns.
“We have gone back to look and we’re working with others who certify — particularly abortion providers on the national level — to identify providers who may be doing abortions in ways that don’t meet what we would think of as a good standard of practice,” he said.