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A Duty to Protect Lives

Carol Petraitis,
ACLU of Pennsylvania
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May 17, 2013

This post was originally featured on

In 1929, Clara Bell Duvall died in Pittsburgh from complications of an illegal abortion. She left behind a grieving household – five young children, an overwhelmed husband, and her own parents were devastated by their loss. The family barely survived.

In 1960, Sharon Magee lost her mother, Mary Magee, in Philadelphia. The story of her death from an illegal abortion was plastered all over the pages of the Daily News and reverberates in the family even today.

The deaths of these women and countless others are the legacy of the dark days when abortions were illegal in Pennsylvania.

In 2009, Karnamaya Mongar, poor, unsuspecting, desperate, and pregnant, died following an abortion in a West Philadelphia clinic operated by Dr. Kermit Gosnell. Like Duvall and Magee, Mongar lacked the resources and education that could have guided her to a safe health provider.

Gosnell has now been convicted on an array of criminal charges, from three counts of first-degree murder to heading a criminal enterprise to, in the death of Mongar, involuntary manslaughter. In addition, his crimes are clearly contrary to every code of medical ethics. As a result, he faces a lifetime behind bars, with no chance of parole.

Does the fault for these crimes lie with the abortion laws of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, or are specific individuals who failed to follow those laws to blame?

By 2009, Pennsylvania had extremely strict laws and regulations for abortion clinics – among the most stringent in the nation. Those laws required the Department of Health to inspect and license abortion clinics.

The department had received complaints about Gosnell’s clinic and had been asked to investigate. Simply put, people in the Department of Health – public employees all – did not do their jobs. They failed to follow up, and failed to enforce the regulations designed to protect the safety of women. This wasn’t the fault of the Supreme Court, the pro-choice movement, or Planned Parenthood. Employees of the Department of Health, for reasons we have yet to understand, neglected to enforce the law.

How have our legislators responded? Have they investigated the department that did not do its job? Held hearings? Have they tried to discover why the laws they themselves passed were not enforced? No. They have instead attempted to tar all legal abortion providers in Pennsylvania with the Gosnell brush. Under the guise of protecting women, they passed a draconian bill championed by some politicians whose real agenda is to outlaw all abortions.

A woman’s right to choose to continue or terminate her pregnancy is constitutionally protected, subject only to reasonable regulation for the sake of health and safety. The new law seeks to circumvent that right by restricting access to safe and legal abortions – to an even greater extent than before. This makes about as much sense as restricting appendectomies all over the state because of one incompetent surgeon.

The new law has caused some clinics in Pennsylvania to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for unnecessary structural changes and has forced others to close. This has already limited access and driven up costs. Will women really be protected? As abortions become harder to obtain, there are likely to be more tragedies of the kind commonly seen before 1973, not fewer.

Opposition to abortion is today a strident political force. Opponents seek to impose their views on everyone and take this personal and private decision out of the hands of a woman and her family. When politicians cave in to these demands, public-health approaches fall by the wayside and the lives, as well as the rights, of women, especially poor women, become pawns in an unrelenting political game. As a result, women are denied fundamental rights to autonomy and equality.

How many more women like Clara Bell Duvall, Mary Magee, and Karnamaya Mongar must suffer before our politicians understand that their duty is to help protect the lives and welfare of our citizens, not to promote the agenda of a vocal minority? Access to safe, legal abortion saves women’s lives and preserves families.

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