You may have heard the horrific story of Kermit Gosnell, the “doctor” in Philadelphia, PA who offered abortion services to desperate low-income patients who had nowhere else to turn. His patients were primarily women of color, and they had run out of options for managing unwanted pregnancies, turning to Gosnell’s clinic although they knew it was dangerous because it was the only option available, thanks to the restrictions on abortion that made it hard for them to access safe and legal abortion in a compassionate environment.
The house of horrors that existed under Gosnell’s roof sounds like the stuff of nightmares: he didn’t just perform abortions but infanticide, and infamously nonsterile tools in filthy rooms with indifferent staff. One of the women who went to Gosnell for help died as a result of getting an excess of anesthesia, compounded by Gosnell’s staff not calling emergency services soon enough, and obstacles in the clinic that made it hard for an ambulance crew to evacuate the patient.
His clinic was a living nightmare, so far below standard that while he attempted to join the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which lists safe practitioners who adhere to their standards, they refused membership on the basis of the conditions at his clinic. Members of the community and fellow health care providers had complained about his clinic and no action was taken, thus endangering his victims for years before the clinic was finally shut down and he was sent to prison for his crimes.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Doctor Steven Brigham has been endangering patients for years, but it was only very recently that one of his patients made the news, triggering an investigation into his activities that may lead to stripping him of his medical license. In a report at Reproductive Health Reality Check, documentation indicates that abortion providers had been complaining about Brigham for two decades, asking for an investigation and intervention to get him out of the operating room. Brigham’s long history of problems includes the loss of his medical license in several states, along with investigations into his clinics, but he hasn’t been fully called to account yet.
This latest event might prove the tipping point, but it’s a dangerous one. Anti-choice proponents point to people like Gosnell and Brigham in order to formulate an argument against allowing patients to access abortion services. That’s actually the wrong conclusion. These men are compelling evidence in the case for freely accessible abortion provided in safe, compassionate environments by people who are trained, confident and comfortable in what they are doing.
The more abortion is driven underground, the more it endangers people with unwanted pregnancies. The issue of unwanted pregnancies doesn’t stop with abortion bans or complex laws making it extremely difficult to access abortion care, it just goes further and further underground. While wealthier women may have resources they can use to access safe abortion care if they need it, for millions of lower class women, especially immigrants and women of color with limited resources, men like Gosnell and Brigham prove to be the only option.
These men run practices that thrive on the restriction of abortion, exploiting their patients and taking advantage of their fear and vulnerability. Banning abortion won’t make them go away. Making abortion safe, accessible and fully legal, on the other hand, will drive them out of business because women will be able to seek care from ethical abortion providers who belong to organizations like the NAF and take the care of their patients seriously.
Such providers can’t practice in an environment hostile to abortion services and the people who need them, creating a stalemate where the practices that thrive are the ones that operate on the margins of the law, to the danger of the women who need to use them.
Let’s make sure that the Kermit Gosnells and Steve Brighams of this world go out of business. We owe it to women today, and girls tomorrow.
Photo credit: Demion.