When the Watchmen Won’t Watch: The Guardians Who Let Dr. Gosnell Get Away With Murder
So how did Dr. Gosnell get away with all this? How could he have run his house of horrors for years without getting caught? The answer can be found in the next section of the Grand Jury’s report. We’ve already covered their report on what Gosnells clinic was like, his murder of children, and his criminal malpractice against his patients. You can find the report in it’s entirety here.
“See no evil
Pennsylvania is not a third-world country. There were several oversight agencies that stumbled upon and should have shut down Kermit Gosnell long ago. But none of them did, not even after Karnamaya Mongar’s death. In the end, Gosnell was only caught by accident, when police raided his offices to seize evidence of his illegal prescription selling. Once law enforcement agents went in, they couldn’t help noticing the disgusting conditions, the dazed patients, the discarded fetuses. That is why the complete regulatory collapse that occurred here is so inexcusable. It should have taken only one look.
The first line of defense was the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The department’s job is to audit hospitals and outpatient medical facilities, like Gosnell’s, to make sure that they follow the rules and provide safe care. The department had contact with the Women’s Medical Society dating back to 1979, when it first issued approval to open an abortion clinic. It did not conduct another site review until 1989, ten years later. Numerous violations were already apparent, but Gosnell got a pass when he promised to fix them. Site reviews in 1992 and 1993 also noted various violations, but again failed to ensure they were corrected.
But at least the department had been doing something up to that point, however ineffectual. After 1993, even that pro forma effort came to an end. Not because of administrative ennui, although there had been plenty. Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor Casey to Governor Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased, even though, as Gosnell proved, that meant both women and babies would pay.
The only exception to this live-and-let-die policy was supposed to be for complaints dumped directly on the department’s doorstep. Those, at least, would be investigated. Except that there were complaints about Gosnell, repeatedly. Several different attorneys, representing women injured by Gosnell, contacted the department. A doctor from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia hand-delivered a complaint, advising the department that numerous patients he had referred for abortions came back from Gosnell with the same venereal disease. The medical examiner of Delaware County informed the department that Gosnell had performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year-old girl carrying a 30-week-old baby. And the department received official notice that a woman named Karnamaya Mongar had died at Gosnell’s hands.
Yet not one of these alarm bells – not even Mrs. Mongar’s death – prompted the department to look at Gosnell or the Women’s Medical Society. Only after the raid occurred, and the story hit the press, did the department choose to act. Suddenly there were no administrative, legal, or policy barriers; within weeks an order was issued to close the clinic. And as this grand jury investigation widened, department officials “lawyered up,” hiring a high-priced law firm to represent them at taxpayer expense. Had they spent as much effort on inspection as they did on attorneys, none of this would have happened to begin with. But even this total abdication by the Department of Health might not have been fatal. Another agency with authority in the health field, the Pennsylvania Department of State, could have stopped Gosnell single-handedly. While the Department of Health regulates facilities, the Department of State, through its Board of Medicine, licenses and oversees individual physicians. Like their colleagues at Health, however, Department of State officials were repeatedly confronted with evidence about Gosnell, and repeatedly chose to do nothing. Indeed, in many ways State had more damning information than anyone else.
Almost a decade ago, a former employee of Gosnell presented the Board of Medicine with a complaint that laid out the whole scope of his operation: the unclean, unsterile conditions; the unlicensed workers; the unsupervised sedation; the underage abortion patients; even the over-prescribing of pain pills with high resale value on the street. The department assigned an investigator, whose investigation consisted primarily of an offsite interview with Gosnell. The investigator never inspected the facility, questioned other employees, or reviewed any records. Department attorneys chose to accept this incomplete investigation, and dismissed the complaint as unconfirmed.
Shortly thereafter the department received an even more disturbing report – about a woman, years before Karnamaya Mongar, who died of sepsis after Gosnell perforated her uterus. The woman was 22 years old. A civil suit against Gosnell was settled for almost a million dollars, and the insurance company forwarded the information to the department. That report should have been all the confirmation needed for the complaint from the former employee that was already in the department’s possession. Instead, the department attorneys dismissed this complaint too. They concluded that death was just an “inherent” risk, not something that should jeopardize a doctor’s medical license. The same thing happened at least twice more: the department received complaints about lawsuits against Gosnell, but dismissed them as meaningless. A department attorney said there was no “pattern of conduct.” He never bothered to check a national litigation database, which would have shown that Gosnell had paid out damages to at least five different women whose internal organs he had punctured during abortions. Apparently, the missing piece in the “pattern” was press coverage. Once that began, after the raid, the department attorney quickly managed to secure a license suspension against Gosnell.
Similar inaction occurred at the municipal level. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health does not regulate doctors or medical facilities; but it is supposed to protect the public’s health. Philadelphia health department employees regularly visited the Women’s Medical Society to retrieve blood samples for testing purposes, but never noticed, or more likely never bothered to report, that anything was amiss. Another employee inspected the clinic in response to a complaint that dead fetuses were being stored in paper bags in the employees’ lunch refrigerator. The inspection confirmed numerous violations of protocols for storage and disposal of infectious waste. But no follow-up was ever done, and the violations continued to the end.
A health department representative also came to the clinic as part of a citywide vaccination program. She promptly discovered that Gosnell was scamming the program; more importantly, she was the only employee, city or state, who actually tried to do something about the appalling things she saw there. By asking questions and poking around, she was able to file detailed reports identifying many of the most egregious elements of Gosnell’s practice. It should have been enough to stop him. But instead her reports went into a black hole, weeks before Karnamaya Mongar walked into the Woman’s Medical Society.
Ironically, the doctor at CHOP who personally complained to the Pennsylvania Department of Health about the spread of venereal disease from Gosnell’s clinic, the doctor who used to refer teenage girls to Gosnell for abortions, became the head of the city’s health department two years ago. But nothing changed in the time leading up to Mrs. Mongar’s death. And it wasn’t just government agencies that did nothing. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and its subsidiary, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, are in the same neighborhood as Gosnell’s office. State law requires hospitals to report complications from abortions. A decade ago, a Gosnell patient died at HUP after a botched abortion, and the hospital apparently filed the necessary report. But the victims kept coming in. At least three other Gosnell patients were brought to Penn facilities for emergency surgery; emergency room personnel said they have treated many others as well. And at least one additional woman was hospitalized there after Gosnell had begun a flagrantly illegal abortion of a 29-week-old fetus. Yet, other than the one initial report, Penn could find not a single case in which it complied with its legal duty to alert authorities to the danger. Not even when a second woman turned up virtually dead. So too with the National Abortion Federation. NAF is an association of abortion providers that upholds the strictest health and legal standards for its members. Gosnell, bizarrely, applied for admission shortly after Karnamaya Mongar’s death. Despite his various efforts to fool her, the evaluator from NAF readily noted that records were not properly kept, that risks were not explained, that patients were not monitored, that equipment was not available, that anesthesia was misused. It was the worst abortion clinic she had ever inspected. Of course, she rejected Gosnell’s application. She just never told anyone in authority about all the horrible, dangerous things she had seen.
Bureaucratic inertia is not exactly news. We understand that. But we think this was something more. We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
Dr. Gosnell is a mass murderer, and his crimes will undoubtedly be punished. But who will punish those who let him get away with murder? Shame on the Pennsylvania Department of Health, shame on the Pennsylvania Department of State, shame on the officials who ordered inspections to be stopped for political reasons, and shame on the National Abortion Federation evaluator who did not speak out after inspecting his appalling facility. Dr. Gosnell should have been shut down more than a decade ago.