Corbett demands answers on clinic

| Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett said Friday that he gave the Health Department and the secretary of State a one-week deadline to report to him on what happened in the bungled oversight of a squalid abortion clinic that a Philadelphia prosecutor described as a "house of horrors," where babies born alive were killed with scissors.

Corbett told the Tribune-Review that he asked for a "detailed report" about how to prevent such a tragedy.

"You can imagine from my role coming as attorney general that we're going to find out exactly what happened on this side," said Corbett, the former state attorney general and one-time U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, who was sworn in as governor Tuesday.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said yesterday that he was "flabbergasted" to learn last year that the state Health Department did not believe its authority extended to abortion clinics.

Authorities this week charged clinic head Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 69, a physician not certified to perform abortions, with murdering seven babies and one woman. His aide, Steven Massof of Mt. Lebanon, and three other clinic employees face murder charges; five employees are charged with conspiracy, drug counts and other crimes.

"I was flabbergasted to learn that the Department of Health did not think their authority to protect public health extended to clinics offering abortion services," Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor and district attorney, said in a statement. " ... I immediately directed them to inspect these facilities. It was simply preposterous that the department took this position, ever."

Health inspectors sporadically inspected the Women's Medical Society in West Philadelphia for 13 years after it opened in 1979. The clinic had not been inspected since 1993, according to a grand jury report this week. Authorities allege workers used unsanitary equipment to induce labor in women with late-term pregnancies, snipping babies' spines and keeping body parts in jars.

The report says state officials ignored horrific conditions during the terms of six governors and 10 Health secretaries. It details a gruesome litany of failures and refusals to uphold even basic public health guidelines and lays out a long list of regulatory failures.

A spokeswoman for Corbett said Thursday that all of Pennsylvania's 22 registered abortion providers were inspected in September and November.

The grand jury said the Health Department and other agencies — including the Department of State, which oversees the Board of Medicine — have allowed Gosnell's clinic to operate nearly unimpeded since the late 1970s. It was not closed until authorities raided it as part of a drug bust early last year.

The Health Department "decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all," the grand jury said.

The department has not commented on the report, referring inquiries to Corbett's office.

Health Department lawyers changed their opinions and advice "to suit the policy preferences of different governors," the report stated. The department dropped its policy of annual inspections in the mid-1990s under Gov. Tom Ridge, who supported abortion rights, it said. Ridge has not commented on the report.

A Health Department lawyer testified about a 1999 meeting of high-level state officials "at which a decision was made not to accept a recommendation to reinstitute regular inspections of abortion clinics," citing concern that routine inspections would lead to "less abortion facilities, less access to women to have an abortion."

Rendell said he "had no knowledge" of the policy. He said the department "never reached out to me to discuss what the policy should be."

Corbett said he discussed the grand jury's findings with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, telling him that "there's been a fumble on this since 1979."

Almost a decade ago, a former Gosnell employee gave the Board of Medicine a complaint that "laid out the whole scope of his operation: the unclean, unsterile conditions; the unlicensed workers; the unsupervised sedation; the underage abortion patients; even the over-prescribing of pain pills with high resale value on the street," according to legal documents.

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