DA: State ignored ‘horrific’ abortion clinic

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Left: District Attorney Seth Williams testifies Tuesday at a joint state Senate committee hearing on the conditions at an abortion clinic. (Marc Levy / AP) Right: Kermit Gosnell was the head doctor at the clinic and is charged with murder. (File / Staff)

HARRISBURG - Dazed and drugged women giving birth in toilets, a 15-year-old working as an anesthesiologist and freezers leaking blood.

And worst of all, state inspectors who turned a blind eye to it all.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and his staff delivered these details in a searing blow Tuesday against two state agencies charged with protecting the health and welfare of the most vulnerable.

Testifying before a Senate joint committee meeting, Williams laid out a case of a massive "system failure" by the Departments of State and Health which he said ignored years of complaints and allowed the abortion clinic run by a doctor now charged with murder to operate for unchecked for almost two decades.

Williams and his top deputies told a joint Senate hearing that had any state official followed up on a single piece of the voluminous amount of evidence suggesting wrongdoing, or set foot in the filthy clinic, it would have immediately been shut down.

Kermit Gosnell, whose Women's Medical Society was closed only after federal drug agents raided it last February, along with ten codefendants, is charged in the deaths of seven babies and a 41-year-old female patient.

In a 261-page report released last month, a Philadelphia grand jury found that Gosnell routinely severed the spinal cords of near full term babies born alive. Gosnell is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing in Philadelphia Wednesday.

Prosecutors say the clinic, which served primarily low-income and minority patients on a cash-only basis netted Gosnell at least $1.8 million a year.

Responding to a question from Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery) about whether he thought culture played a role in the absence of enforcement, Williams nodded in agreement.

"It would not have gone on so long," said Williams. "If the clinic had been located five miles away in Montgomery County, in the nice suburbs of Philadelphia, someone would have heeded the calls.

When federal agents executed a search warrant at the Mantua clinic on Feb. 18 as part of an illegal prescription drug probe, the grim picture of Gosnell's operation became clear. They found a warren of filthy rooms wreaking of cat urine and feces, bloodstained walls and bloody blankets, women "walking around like zombies" and fetal parts in bottles.

"Lack of oversight allowed these horrific conditions to exist," said Williams.

More revelations at the hearing included that some unidentified state officials involved with the case, but who have not been charged with any crime, are billing taxpayers six figures and counting for outside counsel and are no longer cooperating with prosectors.

Two Senate committee leaders, horrified at the grisly details of the clinic, said they would convene hearings within weeks before the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee and Public Health and Welfare committees and subpoena, if necessary, former and current state employees.

"All systems failed," said Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks), chairman of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee. which oversees the state Board of Medicine. "It was total incompetence."

Tomlinson, whose family operates a funeral home in Bensalem, said he was stunned that the clinic had gone uninspected for 17 years when nail salons and barber shops and his funeral business gets inspected at least once a year.

Ann Ponterio, chief of the homicide unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, said state officials who appeared before the grand jury last year were "dismissive" of the allegations against Gosnell and are no longer cooperating in what she described as an ongoing investigation into the clinic's operations.

She said outside attorneys have been hired to represent several officials with the Department of State and Health at a cost to taxpayers of $116,000 so far.

Gov. Corbett, speaking at a Capitol news conference - his first since taking office Jan. 18 - said he was unaware of the agencies' hiring outside counsel since it happened before he took office.

Corbett said he has directed the acting agency heads at the departments of health and state to prepare reports on the clinic case and would comment further when the reports are released.

Sen. Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, which oversees the Department of Health, and Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) are among the lawmakers drafting legislation to ensure the safety of patients at abortion clinics, among them are bills that would mandate regular inspections of abortion clinics, increase penalties for practicing medicine without a license and require agencies to make information available to other agencies.

""We owe it to the victims," said Sen. Richard A. Kasunic (D., Fayette). "There must be accountability. There must be justice. There must be change."

 


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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