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Before Roe

Let’s start with what I know to be true—Roe v. Wade saved women’s lives. Before Roe, women died. They died because they were desperate. They died because they were forced into back-alleys to have abortions in unsanitary conditions, sometimes without any anesthesia. And yet here we are today in 2011, on the 38th anniversary of Roe, learning about another back-alley and a purported “clinic” that preyed on vulnerable, desperate women.

Here is the second thing I know to be true—what Kermit Gosnell did at the Women’s Medical Society was a horrific abomination, something a sociopath would do and in no way a medical practice.  The Women’s Medical Society was no more an abortion clinic than a slaughterhouse is a zoo.  According to the Grand Jury Report, the Women’s Medical Society “was a filthy fraud in which [Gosnell] overdosed patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels—and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths.”

Here is the third thing I know to be true—what Gosnell did when he delivered live babies and severed their spinal cords, was unequivocally murder.  No one, anywhere, would call those actions an abortion.

Like many of the women who sought to terminate pregnancies in unsafe, unsanitary conditions before Roe, the women who sought care at the Women’s Medical Society were largely poor, many of them immigrants, with limited English abilities. But this is a story not only of the horrific deeds of one man.  It is also the story of a systemic failure, in which the lives of women and babies were simply discounted. Complaints were filed repeatedly against Gosnell and the Women’s Medical Society, and even though numerous violations were present in each of the few inspections that were conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the clinic was never closed and no one ever followed up to see if the violations were corrected. One complaint was even hand delivered by a doctor from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Two women died and still the clinic remained open. It was only after a drug raid that the Department of Health took action and closed the clinic. According to the Grand Jury Report, “[T]he reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color.”

What happened at the Women’s Medical Society is both a throwback to the past when abortion was illegal and a foreshadowing of a future in which women’s lives count for less and abortion, if technically legal, is so restricted that desperate women are once again forced to seek care in unlicensed, unregulated and unsafe facilities.  So today let’s remember that Roe saved lives. And let’s ask ourselves, how is it that even with Roe, even when abortion is legal, women were so desperate that they went to a clinic in which, “[f]urniture and blankets were stained with blood,” that “reeked of animal urine” and where the emergency exit was padlocked shut.  What forced these women into such a horrific place?  How could we, as a society, leave these women to the mercy of someone like Kermit Gosnell?  Women deserve better. They deserve a world in which abortion is, in fact, legal—a world in which women, no matter how poor they are, no matter what color they are, not matter what language they speak—have access to safe, affordable abortions. That is the world I want to live in.

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