Pols debate oversight of Philly abortion clinics

This photo shows the Women's Medical Society in Philadelphia where abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell worked. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

June 2, 2011 1:08:11 PM PDT
Two top city officials on Thursday told a state Senate committee looking into regulatory failures related to a "house of horrors" abortion clinic that the Health Department is responsible for overseeing such clinics and the city's main role should be to help patients take complaints to the state.

But state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., a Republican who chairs the Senate's local government committee, said the city must have some responsibility in regulating abortion clinics, noting that the city deals with such issues as prevention of disease, nuisances to public health, building code violations and waste pickup. In the case of abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, he said, the city's message to the business was "We don't care."

"Local oversight must have a prominent role," Eichelberger said at the hearing at Drexel University. "Local health departments have power to regulate."

The hearing comes in response to oversight concerns raised in a gruesome grand jury report in January that charged Gosnell with murder in the deaths of a patient and seven late-term babies who prosecutors say were born alive and killed. The report, which describes filthy and horrific conditions at the west Philadelphia clinic, severely rebuked the state Health Department for failing to shut it down.

Eichelberger, who opposes abortion rights, held the hearing to discuss concerns about local oversight, calling regulation of abortion clinics a "joint responsibility."

But City Solicitor Shelley Smith and Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz said the city's power is limited when it comes to abortion clinics, maintaining that the regulation of such facilities falls under the state Health Department. Schwarz said the city is working to develop better procedures to help people who want to file complaints with the state.

"I can't pull someone's license," Schwarz said. "The state has the authority and the state has the ability to regulate health care facilities."

Several bills are moving through the state Legislature that would impose more stringent regulations on abortion clinics in response to the Gosnell case. Last month, the House passed a bill that would place clinics under the same standards as freestanding ambulatory surgical centers. Opponents counter that many of the proposed new rules regarding the size of rooms and entrances and nurse staffing are unnecessary and so expensive that they will force some clinics out of business.

The grand jury charges came after a lengthy investigation that was prompted by a federal drug raid at Gosnell's clinic in January 2010. The facility catered to mostly low-income, minority women, dozens of whom were left with perforated organs or other injuries, according to prosecutors. The grand jury found that state health officials charged with regulating the medical facility failed to inspect it for more than a decade or respond to repeated complaints.

Prosecutors said Gosnell made millions of dollars over three decades performing thousands of dangerous abortions, many of them illegal late-term procedures, in his "house of horrors." Gosnell has said he doesn't understand why he is being charged with eight counts of murder.

Marsha L. Napper, a case manager for People's Emergency Center, a nonprofit advocacy center for homeless women and children near Gosnell's office, told the committee that abortion clinics should be checked just as rigorously as any other medical facility.

"It should be the same procedure," Napper said. "We have to make sure people do their jobs."