Kermit Gosnell, the back alley, and the front door

The only difference is the door by which you enter.

Editor’s Note: This article was first printed by the Elliot Institute (PO Box 7348, Springfield, IL 62791-7348) on April 23, 2013 and is reprinted here with permission. Additional material is posted here.

Kermit Gosnell

Kermit Gosnell.

At The Wall Street Journal, James Taranto, a self-described member of the “mushy middle” on abortion, writes:

One of the strongest practical arguments in favor of the Roe regime is that abortion has been around since time immemorial and outlawing it only drove it underground, leading women to endanger themselves by seeking out the services of back-alley quacks. The Philadelphia grand jurors recounted a powerful example from their own city’s history.

It was called the Mother’s Day Massacre. A young Philadelphia doctor “offered to perform abortions on 15 poor women who were bused to his clinic from Chicago on Mother’s Day 1972, in their second trimester of pregnancy.” The women didn’t know that the doctor “planned to use an experimental device called a ‘super coil’ developed by a California man named Harvey Karman.”

A colleague of Karman’s Philadelphia collaborator described the contraption as “basically plastic razors that were formed into a ball. . . . They were coated into a gel, so that they would remain closed. These would be inserted into the woman’s uterus. And after several hours of body temperature, . . . the gel would melt and these . . . things would spring open, supposedly cutting up the fetus.”

Nine of the 15 Chicago women suffered serious complications. One of them needed a hysterectomy. The following year, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. It would be 37 more years before the Philadelphia doctor who carried out the Mother’s Day Massacre would go out of business. His name is Kermit Gosnell.

Back-alley abortions were indisputably a problem before 1973. That’s no defense of the Roe regime, which failed to solve it.

Women Still Injured and Killed After Legalization

Indeed, the legalization of abortion has failed to prevent women from being exploited, abused, traumatized, maimed, injured, and killed before, during, and after abortion.

Tonya Reaves

Tonya Reaves.

Women and girls still die from abortion, including Tonya Reaves, Jennifer Morbelli, Christin Gilbert, and Karnamaya Mongar, to name just a few, but their deaths are no longer automatically investigated by police or even counted in the official statistics.

Research has linked abortion to higher death rates among women in the years following, as well as increased rates of breast cancer, substance abuse, depression, suicide, subsequent pre-term birth, anxiety disorders, and other problems. Yet abortion clinics routinely fail to screen for known, statistically validated risk factors that increase women’s likelihood of psychological problems after abortion.

Nor are the abortionists usually held accountable for the deaths and injuries they cause. Dr. Lenora Berning, an emergency room doctor who has treated women injured by abortion, notes:

Abortion is one of the most frequently performed surgical procedures in the United States, yet it is the least regulated. It is the only elective surgical procedure that I know of in which the doctor performing the procedure is not responsible for follow-up care, nor does he or she take an active role in dealing with the complications. Not only this, but the very nature of abortion clinics, which practice in isolation from the rest of the medical community, keeps the abortion provider free from accountability for these complications.

Filthy clinics, substandard care, illegal procedures, untrained and unlicensed staff, and the other appalling conditions found at Gosnell’s clinic are, unfortunately, not as rare as most people think, nor did they go away with legalization. For example, a Delaware clinic was recently closed and is being investigated over allegations of multiple botched abortions.

Women Are Less Free after Legalization

But risking these hazards is necessary in order for women to maintain their reproductive freedom, right? To the contrary, the legalization of abortion has done nothing to advance women’s freedom. Given research and anecdotal evidence showing that most women who abort are pressured to do so, and that most abortions are likely unwanted, one could argue that abortion has made women less free.

Before Roe, a woman or girl who was being pressured or coerced to abort could resist on the grounds that it was illegal, unsafe, and immoral. Legalization has made it easier for those around her to insist that because abortion is legal, it must be “safe,” and because it is “socially approved,” it must be moral. It makes it easier for them to refuse to support her desire to continue the pregnancy and insist that she abort anyway.

pregnantpiercingFor example, when actress Hunter Tylo was fired from the TV show Melrose Place after she became pregnant, her pregnancy discrimination suit quoted a producer as saying, “Why doesn’t she just go out and get an abortion? Then she can work.”

And an article published several years ago on a popular men’s website offered advice to men about how to pressure their wives or girlfriends into unwanted abortions. The article was taken down after numerous complaints, but not before readers saw Isabella Snow’s advice that men weren’t obligated to support their child “beyond what your conscience and the law expects of you.” Rather than asking men to step up to the plate, Snow suggested they threaten abandonment in order to secure an abortion, regardless of the woman’s wishes:

This was her decision, not yours, and the bulk of the responsibility is now hers. Take a moment to spell this out for her when she gives you her final decision; it just may sway her over to your side.

The legalization of abortion has not ended child abuse (child abuse rates have increased since 1973) or violence against women. At least two studies of maternal death rates found that homicide was the leading cause of death among pregnant women. Tracking news stories reveals that in many cases, the perpetrator wanted to get rid of the pregnancy and attacked or killed the victim after she refused to abort. For teens and young girls, abortion is often used to cover and up and continue sexual abuse by getting rid of the evidence of the crime — the resulting pregnancy.

Putting Abortion Ideology before Women

Given all this, one would think that abortion advocates would be fighting to stamp out abuses and improve the standard of care in abortion clinics, as some have recently claimed. But reality has proven these claims to be false.

Evidence of physical and psychological harm to women is routinely dismissed and attacked by abortion advocates and their allies. Nancy Russo, a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association, admitted that a study linking abortion to increased rates of mental health problems among women (a study conducted by a pro-choice researcher, no less) would have no effect on the APA’s position on abortion because “to pro-choice advocates, mental health effects are not relevant to the legal context of arguments to restrict access to abortion.”

Abortion advocates have repeatedly fought efforts to implement commonsense measures — such as screening for coercion and pre-existing risk factors for post-abortion psychological problems — that would protect the rights, health, and lives of women facing abortion. In fact, while abortion clinics claim to protect women’s “right to choose,” they actually don’t promote any other option than abortion.

Gosnell’s clinic advised women to pay more for sedation if “your decision is being forced by your parents or partner,” while a Kansas clinic pre-printed its forms to show that no reports of abuse had been filed for their patients. Former clinic workers have reported that they were trained to hide information from women and pressure them to abort, with one former Planned Parenthood counselor noting that “Planned Parenthood’s mission is to pressure as many women into having abortion as it can.” And women have told, over and over again, about being denied vital information and coerced or bullied into abortion by clinic staff.

Filthy abortion clinic equipment

Filthy abortion clinic equipment

Even when problems come to light, they are often not reported — or if they are, they are often ignored by both the regulators and the media. In Gosnell’s case, his clinic had not been inspected in 13 years. Staff members and others who knew about the problems, including an official from the National Abortion Federation (which denied Gosnell’s application for membership based on deficiencies at his clinic), didn’t report the problems.

According to the Grand Jury report, health officials “knew that Gosnell and his clinic were offering unacceptable medical care to women and girls, yet DOH failed to take any action to stop the atrocities documented by this Grand Jury.” Further, the Grand Jury “discovered that Pennsylvania’s Department of Health has deliberately chosen not to enforce laws that should afford patients at abortion clinics the same safeguards and assurances of quality health care as patients of other medical service providers.”

Since Gosnell’s arrest, abortion advocates have continued to fight proposed regulations elsewhere – even ones that could save women’s lives. It appears that political protection for abortion trumps the health and lives of women and girls (to say nothing of the lives of children, including those born alive).

Legal Abortions, Back-Alley Ethics

So it seems that the only real difference between getting an abortion before Roe and getting one after is the door by which you enter.* As one researcher pointed out, “While abortion is legal, it is still practiced with the ethics of the back alley.”

In a letter posted at, Eileen Roberts, president of Mothers and Advocates for Mothers Alone, and the mother of a teen girl injured by abortion, wrote:

How can we be so naive to think that every surgical procedure of abortion is safe and use the argument that women would resort to back-alley abortions? Legalizing abortion simply gave the back-alley physician permission to put his shingle on the front door.

… Abortion may be currently legal, but it is anything but safe for either mother or child. In every abortion someone dies.

My 14-year-old was told she was going to the best abortion clinic in Virginia. Her boyfriend and a so-called adult friend, who transported her 45 miles from our home, did not know her as her parents did.

She suffered emotional and physical consequences from a so-called safe, legal abortion.

To add insult to injury, my husband and I were responsible for more than $27,000 in medical costs to repair the damage done by the abortionist.

In my opinion, this was an example of a legal back-alley abortion.


*Prior to Roe, women seeking illegal abortions at doctors’ offices were often instructed to enter by the back-door after regular office hours to allay suspicion — hence the term “back-alley abortion.” Most illegal abortions were, in fact, performed by doctors.

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