Whenever I think about the mostly-black, impoverished women who subjected themselves to Philadelphia physician Kermit Gosnell’s seedy abortion procedures, I don’t think about Pennsylvania.
I think about Mississippi.
The Magnolia State is the nation’s poorest. Thirty-seven percent of its residents are black. Next to the District of Columbia, it has the highest percentage of black people of any state.
And it has only one abortion clinic.
Even that one clinic, Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization, based in Jackson, is hanging on by a thread. A state law, passed last year, was aimed at shutting it down by requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals; something that can be difficult to obtain if most of the hospitals are religiously affiliated and, as clinic owner Diane Derzis told the Associated Press, if those hospitals don’t want protesters outside.
A federal judge blocked the clinic’s closing until the fate of the law is decided. But if Mississippi is successful in shutting the doors of its sole legal provider, it could wind up creating an underground market for countless unsafe and illegal ones.
Illegal ones – like the ones who’ll exploit thousands of poor black women there who might seek an abortion, but who can’t afford a ride to another state.
Illegal ones – who’ll view desperate black women through the same opportunistic lens in which predatory lenders view poor black people who can’t get bank loans or access to lines of credit.
Illegal ones – who’ll treat poor, black women just like Gosnell did, except worse.
This week Gosnell, 72, was found guilty of first-degree murder for killing three babies who were born alive by severing their spines with scissors. He was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of a patient; according to prosecutors, he heavily dosed up patients, most of whom were seeking unsafe, late term abortions, with painkillers.
Investigators described Gosnell’s clinic as a “house of horrors,” with furniture stained with blood, body parts and fetuses in jars, dirty instruments and foul smells. That’s almost as bad as the days when a fraudulent doctor would pull out a dirty knife and folding table to operate on poor women.
The main factor, according to news reports, that abetted Gosnell’s horrific, unlawful practices was the fact that Pennsylvania stopped regularly inspecting abortion clinics 17 years ago, and only resumed them in 2010.
But the problem is that now, a slew of unnecessary, expensive regulations have been imposed on clinics that were operating safely and lawfully. As a result, a number of them have closed, and the procedure may become more costly.
Such overkill doesn’t make abortion safer as much as it makes it more inaccessible. And inaccessibility means more women may be driven to dangerous means to end their pregnancies; that they might seek out another Gosnell.
As many did before abortion was legalized in 1973.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive issues, in the 1960s, almost one in 10 low-income women in New York City reported trying to end a pregnancy with an illegal abortion., while in 1962, almost 1,600 women were treated for botched abortions at Harlem Hospital.
Black and Latino women were more likely to die from illegal abortions, a fact that concerned Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, who ran for president in 1972. She cited a study showing that in New York, 49 percent of women who died from botched abortions were black, while 25 percent were white and 65 percent were Puerto Rican.
Which brings me back to Mississippi.
I think about how, if the last abortion clinic in a state with the largest percentage of black people closes, it could have a particularly disparate impact on black women seeking such services there. That’s because, as history shows us, shutting down clinics won’t end the practice as much as it will create a market for predators like Gosnell; a man who had such callous disregard not only for the fetuses that were born alive, but also for the black women who were too far along in their pregnancies to even be at his clinic.
So Gosnell’s house of horrors is, in a way, a look into a future that could take us back to a grisly past. Especially in a place like Mississippi, where there is a lot of regard for sanctimony.
And virtually none for whether women live or die.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.