When Kermit Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for killing babies in his West Philadelphia abortion clinic, it brought a continuing debate onto the front pages, with even the amount of trial coverage a cause of conflict. With his case as a backdrop, abortion-rights activists warned that his filthy and dangerous clinic would be the norm for desperate poor women if increasingly restrictive laws continued to be approved. Planned Parenthood called his crimes “appalling.” Many opposed to abortion saw Gosnell and his clinic, ignored by regulators, as indicative of why terminating a pregnancy, particularly late in the process, should be illegal.
The fact that what Gosnell was doing was criminal occasionally got lost in all the politics. His case, though, is prompting closer looks at abortion providers.
In neighboring Delaware, state lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday tried to sort out allegations of questionable medical conduct at several clinics there, and what the state did or did not do in response.
The setting — a bipartisan hearing at the state capital of Dover though no legislation was pending — could be considered political. The focus was the testimony of two nurses who said they were not opposed to abortions, but to unsafe medical practices. They described conditions they said they witnessed at their former employer, Planned Parenthood of Delaware, including rushed abortion procedures that emphasized speed and profit instead of patient safety, insufficiently trained staff and a neglect of medical standards that ultimately put patients at risk.
Joyce Vasikonis and Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich appeared at the ad hoc hearing called by state senators Robert Venables, a Democrat, and Greg Lavelle, a Republican. The Susan B. Anthony List, an organization dedicated to pursuing policies and electing candidates who will reduce and ultimately end abortion, sent out a media advisory and provided me with requested copies of the women’s testimony.
Mitchell-Werbrich said she worked a total of 27 days at Planned Parenthood’s Wilmington and Dover sites before she resigned in August 2012. “I feared that a patient was going to end up being harmed and that I would lose my nursing license.”
She said she witnessed “meat-market-style, assembly-line abortions,” with patients “rushed in and out the door.”
“The abortion rooms need to be sanitized and the sterile procedures need to be just that, sterile, so patients are not exposed to the blood and body fluids of other patients,” Mitchell-Werbrich said.
Vasikonis, who also left in August 2012, said, “For the last three weeks I worked at Planned Parenthood of Delaware, I alone scrubbed and sterilized instruments because no one else knew how.”
Both testified that they had long pushed for action from state regulators. They repeated charges they had made in an April investigative report on WPVI-TV ABC News, in which Mary Peterson from the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services said her investigators went into the facility in October of last year after a complaint and found no problems with the sterilization of utensils or with blood being left between surgeries. Peterson also said in the report that in Delaware the department usually investigates only in cases where a complaint has been made. “I am not going to lie to you,” she said, “we don’t have the manpower to do routine inspections.” A federal inspection by OSHA did cite the facility for two violations.
A News Journal/DelawareOnline report said that hours before the hearing, the Delaware Division of Public Health released results of its survey of Planned Parenthood’s Wilmington clinic. The survey cited more than a dozen “unsafe and unsanitary” practices and conditions at the clinic, “including inadequate documentation of narcotics, supplies that had exceeded expiration dates, lax practices to ensure sterility, unlabeled bottles of fluid, overdue or uncertain maintenance records.” The report said an April 24 letter from the division director gave the clinic 10 days to correct the violations and come up with a plan to prevent future problems, and that Ruth Lytle-Barnaby, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Delaware, said in a May 22 response that policies and procedures, including staff training, had been modified and improvements implemented.
“Over the past year, various scheduled and unscheduled internal and external reviews were completed at our health centers and have helped ensure that we are meeting our rigorous standards,” Lytle-Barnaby, who came to the agency after both Vasikonis and Mitchell-Werbrich left, said in a statement on Wednesday. “In recent days, the Delaware Division of Public Health has stated that they have concluded their recent survey of our health centers and that we have complied in areas that were noted in their last unannounced visit. The findings of the recent survey were immediately rectified. While it is important to adhere to every medical regulation, the Division of Public Health findings do not in any way support the allegations of former employees who are now working with organizations whose mission is to oppose our services.
“For those of you who may have heard speculation and falsehoods about our services in recent months, I want to provide clear information. Our doors have always remained open, we are providing our full range of services, and all of our staff are highly trained and meeting our promise of quality care.”
The statement also said that more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood of Delaware’s work is “preventive care,” such as breast cancer screenings, birth control and prevention and treatment of STDs.
Ellen Barrosse is a founder of the Delaware pro-life group A Rose and a Prayer, whose mission is to reduce the number of abortions in Delaware by half. We talked by phone as the Wednesday hearing, which she attended, was winding down. She said of the two nurses who spoke, “I don’t think what they’re doing is easy; I think what they’re doing is right.”
“It’s absolutely a class issue,” Barrosse said. “Middle-class parents are taking their children to hospitals.”
Barrosse, who owns a global pharmaceutical business, said she “went from being very liberal to being very conservative,” and is national committee chairwoman for the Republican party of Delaware, on the Republican National Committee. The party, she said, is more aligned with her own belief “that a human being deserving of our protection exists at the moment of conception.”
There was some political consensus at the end of the hearing, according to The News Journal/DelawareOnline report. Lavelle, the Republican, said he was “shocked” to hear stories of “horrible patient care” and lack of response, and Venables, the Democrat, discussed reviving legislation to regulate clinics more closely.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3