Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

W. Phila abortion doctor had problems 38 years ago

Kermit B. Gosnell figured in a test of an abortion device that harmed 9 of 15 women.

Kermit Baron Gosnell, whose West Philadelphia abortion clinic was shut down this week as a "clear danger to the public," was a key figure in a disastrous abortion experiment 38 years ago.

The test of a novel abortion device led to a federal investigation, the arrest of a flamboyant California abortion activist, and tighter regulation of the testing of reproductive technology.

It also left nine women with severe complications.

The state Board of Medicine suspended Gosnell's medical license Monday following a raid of the clinic at 3801 Lancaster Ave. by federal and and state drug agents looking for evidence of illegal distribution of prescription painkillers.

The suspension order described unsanitary conditions and said an unlicensed employee was allowed to dispense prescription drugs and perform exams on abortion patients - including Karnamaya Mongar, who developed fatal arrythmia in November after being given multiple doses of painkillers.

Gosnell, 69, could not be reached for comment.

His lawyer, Demetrius J. Parrish, said, "He hasn't been charged with anything. I'm not sure what they intend to charge him with."

In the early 1970s, Gosnell was voluble with reporters.

"I personally would never agree to have an abortion performed on any woman bearing my child," Gosnell told an Inquirer reporter in October 1972. "As a physician, I am very concerned about the sanctity of life. But it is for this precise reason that I provide abortions for women who want and need them."

It was an era of transition for abortion law. More states were loosening restrictions, foreshadowing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that declared abortion legal up to the point of fetal viability - about 24 weeks. Many states with tough statutes, meanwhile, were in a sort of limbo because of legal challenges; Pennsylvania's law had been struck down as unconstitutionally vague.

At that time, Gosnell, a 1966 graduate of Jefferson Medical College, said he was doing about 500 abortions a year. That is less than half the number of procedures he does annually now, according to state records.

The 1972 Inquirer article said Gosnell was a "respected man" in his community, a finalist for the Junior Chamber of Commerce's "Young Philadelphian of the Year" because of his work directing the Mantua Halfway House, a rehab clinic for drug addicts. (By the late 1980s, public records show, state tax liens were piling up against the halfway house, and the abortion clinic had a $41,000 federal tax lien.)

Gosnell was also known in the world of abortion-rights activists. Then and now, he advertised his willingness to perform abortions beyond the 12-week limit set by most clinics.

That's how Gosnell became a key figure in "the super coil fiasco," as social historian Tanfer Emin Tunc called it in a 2008 journal article.

Harvey Karman, a California psychologist who ran an underground abortion service in the 1950s, wanted to make abortion simpler, cheaper, and less painful. He succeeded by inventing a soft, flexible tube, the Karman cannula, that is still used in early-stage abortions.

Then he "set out to revolutionize second-trimester abortion" with a plastic spiral, "the super coil," that could be inserted into the uterus to trigger an abortion, according to Tunc.

At the invitation of the Bangladeshi government, Karman tested the device on hundreds of women there who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers. He claimed there were no complications.

On Mother's Day weekend in 1972, Karman, other activists, and 15 women in their second trimester of pregnancy boarded a bus in Chicago and headed for Philadelphia, where Gosnell had agreed to give them super-coil abortions at his clinic, then at 133 S. 36th St. The women, who were poor, had been unable to get abortions in Chicago or New York.

Gosnell's super-coil abortions - filmed and later shown on a New York City educational-TV program, thanks to Karman - turned out badly.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health subsequently did an investigation that detailed serious complications suffered by nine of the 15 women, including one who needed a hysterectomy.

The complications included a punctured uterus, hemorrhage, infections, and retained fetal remains.

The CDC researchers recommended strict controls on any future testing of the device - the beginning of "increasing regulations on the development of reproductive technologies," Tunc wrote.

Karman spent two years in court battles in Philadelphia. He was convicted of practicing medicine without a license, but a Common Pleas Court judge overturned the conviction in 1974, saying then-District Attorney Arlen Specter had failed to show which women Karman had treated.

Gosnell - who testified that Karman had done an "innocuous" part of the procedures but not fetal extractions - was not charged with anything.

In more recent years, Gosnell has been named as a defendant in 46 civil suits. Ten of these were medical-malpractice cases - including one in which the patient died.

Semika Shirelle Shaw, 22, went to Gosnell's West Philadelphia clinic for an abortion on March 1, 2000. The next day she called the clinic complaining of heavy bleeding. She died March 4 of a perforated uterus and a bloodstream infection. The suit filed on behalf of her two children alleged that Gosnell failed to tell her to return to the clinic or seek emergency medical care.

Gosnell settled out of court in 2002 for an undisclosed sum.