If you thought that racially segregated doctor’s offices were done away with in the 1960s, get ready to feel like you just stepped out of a time machine.
Many of us have heard the grisly story by NBC Philadelphia of an African-American physician in West Philadelphia who is facing eight counts of murder for his role in the deaths of a woman and seven babies. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 69, operated “The Women’s Medical Society” for over 30 years, where he, along with a staff of untrained personnel, performed abortions beyond the legal limit of 24 weeks in a “decrepit and unsanitary” clinic. Gosnell and his staff are also accused of murdering babies who were born alive by cutting their spinal cords with scissors.
As you may have witnessed, media coverage of these charges against Dr. Gosnell and nine staff members of his clinic has been rife with gruesome details like this one, which have understandably generated public reactions of horror and disgust. But buried deep in articles describing “bloodstained furniture” and ” jars packed with severed baby feet,” is a less gory but equally as horrifying insight that, at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, “white women from the suburbs were ushered into a separate, slightly cleaner area” than Gosnell’s regular clientele, which was comprised primarily of poor minority women, including many immigrants. Gosnell reportedly treated these white suburban clients to a more pleasant and sanitary experience because he believed they were “more likely to file complaints” about substandard care.
The crimes of which Gosnell is accused are exceedingly serious; he must be prosecuted for them to the fullest extent of the law. But the undeniably racialized elements of his practice reflect a need to explore the bigger picture of this story, beyond Gosnell’s presumed guilt or innocence: why Gosnell’s clinic was allowed to continue for so long, and why Dr. Gosnell’s patients, who were overwhelmingly poor minority women, had come to expect their health care needs to be met with such inadequacy that they were forced to accept Gosnell’s “care”.
Dr. Gosnell’s arrest comes just days before the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the famous 7-2 United States Supreme Court decision that struck down Texas’s criminal abortion laws in favor of a woman’s right to decide when and whether to have a child. Gosnell’s arrest also comes in the midst of dramatic and racially charged attacks on this landmark decision.
Just this week, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who is considering a bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, invoked President Obama’s race during an interview with the conservative CNS News network show Online with Terry Jeffrey as a reason the president should oppose abortion, implying that black people should be especially anti-abortion because of this nation’s history of denying their humanity. And how could we forget those offensive anti-abortion billboards erected last year in predominantly black Atlanta neighborhoods proclaiming “Black Children are an Endangered Species”? These billboards, funded primarily by white people in far-right anti-abortion groups, urged black women not to exercise their reproductive freedom by pushing a conspiracy theory that abortion in the African-American community is akin to “genocide”.
Many of these attacks on black reproductive autonomy cite the fact that, among women of all ages, black Americans are almost four times as likely as whites to have an abortion. But these rates are a reflection of higher rates of unintended pregnancy among black women, which are symptoms of the broader health disparities faced by the black community. Disparities are exacerbated by restrictive policies such as the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision barring the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortions that mostly affects low-income women of color.
We can’t allow the sensationalistic images from Gosnell’s case to distract us from the underlying issues that might otherwise be highlighted by this case; namely, the realities of women’s and children’s health care in poor, urban, and minority-populated areas of the United States, and basic things we can do as a community to improve these realities.
Beyond the horror and hype lies information with important long-term health and policy implications that is getting lost in the shuffle. Even those typically on opposite sides of the abortion debate can agree: we need to focus on enacting policies and campaigns that help black women have fewer unintended pregnancies and achieve better health outcomes in general. Though we’ve come to expect less, we deserve better health care now as much as ever before. That we live in an environment in which such an obviously shady practice could thrive for so long is simply unacceptable. Even members of the DA’s office, who describe themselves as covering “a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion” in the Grand Jury’s report on the case, highlight the clear “disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants” displayed by Gosnell.
“Substandard providers prey on low-income women who don’t know that they do have other (safe) options,” says Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation. Ultimately, if we fail to pursue policies and procedures that account for the health needs of women of color, we empower the Dr. Gosnells of the world to continue their exploitation.
Sadly, we can’t go back and save the life of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar, a Nepali refugee who reportedly overdosed on anesthetics prescribed by Gosnell and administered by his untrained staff. Nor can we save other lives that may have been lost at the hands of Dr. Gosnell and his staff. But it can’t end with these grisly headlines and tragic deaths.
We have an opportunity to stand up and speak out to protect the lives of future generations of women- especially low-income women of color who have been given few options for treatment and care — by supporting policies that will ensure increased access to basic and legal health care, starting with repealing the Hyde Amendment and working to thwart Republicans’ recent and ongoing efforts to repeal the health care reform act.