AP Philly Abortion Clinic Story Gives Rendell a Pass, Misses Serious Error in Grand Jury Timeline

In an Associated Press report by Patrick Walters yesterday afternoon, the following two reasons were offered as to why the Philadelphia abortion "clinic" operated by Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who was arrested and charged earlier this week "with murdering seven babies and one woman who went to him for an abortion," had not been inspected since 1993:

  • Democratic former Governor Ed Rendell, who left office on Tuesday after eight years as Keystone State chief executive, claimed that officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH), in the AP's words, "didn't think its authority extended to abortion clinics."
  • The grand jury indictment of Dr. Gosnell says that DOH "decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all."

According to the indictment handed down against Gosnell, the hard-to-handle first explanation (If DOH doesn't have jurisdiction, who does? No one?) is a subset of the second, i.e., the opinion on lack of jurisdiction was part of a longer-term effort to come up with reasons to avoid inspections. Walters never told readers that, and in doing so largely let Rendell off the hook for the fact that almost half of 17-years involved -- the longest time period of any Keystone State governor contemporaneous with the non-inspection regime of non-inspection occurred on his watch (the others: Bob Casey, prolife Democrat, somewhere between 13 months and two years; Tom Ridge, prochoice Republican, 6-3/4 years; Mark Schweiker, prolife Republican, 15 months). Walters also saved the grand jury's overall "political reasons" assessment for Paragraphs 9-12 after giving Rendell's explanation paragraphs 1-4.

Bob Casey? Yes, though the grand jury for some reason didn't recognize it.

Here are the relevant paragraphs from Walters' report:

Pa. ex-gov. flabbergasted by lax abortion scrutiny

 

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said Friday he was "flabbergasted" when he found out last year that the state Health Department didn't think its authority extended to abortion clinics such as the one in Philadelphia where prosecutors say a doctor used scissors to kill viable babies.

 

Rendell, a Democrat whose second term as governor ended last week, said in a statement that he ordered increased inspections after a clinic raid early last year yielded gruesome accounts of bloody floors and baby parts in jars. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who ran the clinic, was charged this week with murdering seven babies and one woman who went to him for an abortion.

 

"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, also a two-term Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, said in a statement released through a spokeswoman.

 

... In its report, the grand jury said the department and other agencies - including the Department of State, under which the Board of Medicine falls - allowed Gosnell's clinic to operate nearly unimpeded since the late '70s. It hadn't been inspected since 1993.

 

... The grand jury said politics played a role in the abortion-oversight issues.

 

In its report, the panel said the Health Department "decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all."

 

Health Department lawyers changed their opinions and advice "to suit the policy preferences of different governors," the report said. The department dropped its policy of annual inspections in the mid-1990s under Gov. Tom Ridge, who supported abortion rights, the report said.

 

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 a concern that routine inspections would lead to "less abortion facilities, less access to women to have an abortion."

While conveniently skipping Schweiker's tenure, which followed Ridge and preceded his own, Rendell is strongly implying that Ridge was fully aware of what Department of Health officials were deliberately not doing. That's interesting, especially because even the grand jury has the no-inspection timeline out of sync with the timing of gubernatorial terms, in at least three places:

(Page 9) But at least the department had been doing something up to that point, however ineffectual. After 1993, even that pro forma effort came to an end. Not because of administrative ennui, although there had been plenty. Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor Casey to Governor Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased, even though, as Gosnell proved, that meant both women and babies would pay.

 

(Page 15) Senior legal counsel Kenneth Brody insisted that the department had no legal obligation to monitor abortion clinics, even though it exercised such a duty until the Ridge administration, and exercised it again as soon as Gosnell became big news.

 

(Page 147) Under Governor Robert Casey, she said, the department inspected abortion facilities annually. Yet, when Governor Tom Ridge came in, the attorneys interpreted the same regulations that had permitted annual inspections for years to no longer authorize those inspections. Then, only complaint- driven inspections supposedly were authorized. Staloski said that DOH’s policy during Governor Ridge’s administration was motivated by a desire not to be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions.

This next sentence requires bolding: The problem is that Casey served until January 1995, so a no-effort period of more than a year occurred under his watch, because the grand jury says that annual inspections ended in 1993. How could they mess up something so obvious so completely?

This is not to imply that Casey was aware of DOH's laxness. It seems inconceivable in light of his prolife convictions, which among other things caused him to be denied the opportunity to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention when proabort Bill Clinton was nominated, that Casey could have known and would not have done something about it. In fact, it seems reasonable to ask if DOH began the non-inspection regime in secret for "political reasons" under Casey in order to embarrass him if he followed through with an attempt to challenge Clinton in the 1996 Democratic primaries. Casey appeared intent on running against Clinton until health problems sidelined him. It's hard to understate how furious Bill and Hillary Clinton and their Pennsylvania supporters were at Casey's non-support during the 1992 general election campaign, and how concerned they initially were about his potential candidacy.

The policy begun under Casey appears to have remained on autopilot for the next 15-plus years without Ridge's, Schweiker's, or Rendell's knowledge, until last year. The grand jury indictment does mention "a meeting of high-level government officials in 1999 at which a decision was made not to accept a recommendation to reinstitute regular inspections of abortion clinics," but does not say who those "high-level government officials" were, or how high-level they were.

As far as I can tell, though it's reasonable to wonder why a deliberate policy of non-inspection in the absence of specific complaints continued for so long under Ridge, and it's reasonable to believe that an involved governor should have eventually found out about it, it has yet to be established that he actually knew. Rendell's contention about Ridge advocating a deliberate non-inspection policy, and his "somehow" forgetting that Ridge wasn't his immediate successor, both seem conveniently contrived. Patrick Walters' failure to challenge Rendell, especially on the succession issue, was a really weak moment.

It would also be useful if someone would look into the grand jury's obvious timeline problem, what may have caused it, and what may have motivated it. Someone other than Patrick Walters, please.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.