January 21, 2012, was an overcast day in Birmingham, Alabama. The group that met the third Saturday of each month to pray outside the New Woman All Women abortion clinic was dispersing. As they climbed into their cars, a couple of the women noticed something unusual. They kept a low profile, but one of them grabbed her camera.
They watched as two women were taken away in ambulances. Paramedics hand-lifted one of the patients down the back stairs into the alley where a gurney waited beside the dumpster. The other woman was brought out in a wheelchair, her face covered by an oxygen mask.
Based on the women's testimony and the photographs they took, local pro-life leaders asked the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) to investigate the clinic. For a couple of months, it seemed like nothing was going to happen. Then, on Good Friday, April 6, 2012, the ADPH published a shocking 76-page "report of deficiencies" found at the New Woman All Women Clinic.
As it turns out, the two women removed in ambulances had been given an excessive amount of Vasopressin, a drug that limits blood loss. The nurse who had drawn up the syringes mistakenly gave them each 2 cubic centimeters instead of 0.2 cubic centimeters.
The report also stated that clinic administrators failed to ensure that "the clinic staff was properly trained to provide safe quality patient care" and had no policies in place to respond to medication errors. Examination of medical records revealed not only that were records sloppy and incomplete, but also that some were falsified. Apparently clinic employees had a habit of filling in the records ahead of time, evidenced by the fact that the records of both women taken away in ambulances said "ambulatory discharged in no distress." The nurse who signed the records did not even work on the day of the medication overdose.
There is one patient, described on page 56 of the report, who I can't get out of my mind. Patient #43 was a 17-year-old girl, which means she couldn't have an abortion without parental consent. She filled out the required questionnaire, which included these questions:
3. Do you think having this abortion is in your best interest?
4. Are you sure you want to have this abortion?
5. Do you think you will most likely be able to go on with your normal activities without emotional or psychological problems because of the abortion?
To each of these questions, Patient #43 checked "No." In answer to the question, "Why do you want to have the abortion?" she wrote, "Because my mother want me to."
On May 18, 2012, the New Woman All Women clinic relinquished its license. On the third Saturday of May, I joined the group that had been meeting there for prayer since 1994. This time, we met for praise. Someone inside the clinic turned on the sprinklers, but the seasoned pro-life activists had brought their umbrellas. (Only at abortion clinics is it routine for the sprinklers to be pointed at the sidewalk rather than the grass.) As we sang our songs of praise, a woman with long grey hair left the shelter of the umbrellas and danced in the spray of sprinklers. It was a joyful day.
Need for Regulation
Abortion is a distasteful subject. Fear of intruding on a woman's right to choose along with fear of making a painful situation worse can make us keep our distance and pretend it doesn't exist. Since many doctors will not perform abortions, some women go to sub-par facilities like the New Woman clinic or the one run by Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia. These clinics exist for profit, and they are frequently staffed by abortionists who fly in from out of state and provide no follow-up care for their patients.
In the case of the New Woman clinic, the Alabama Department of Public Health could have justified turning a blind eye to violations because of the clinic's history, for it was the one bombed by Eric Rudolph in 1998. A security guard died and a nurse was seriously injured in that horrific bombing. But I'm thankful to say that our public health officials didn't let the clinic's history place it above the law.
This was not the case in Philadelphia. The "House of Horrors" run by Kermit Gosnell went 17 years without being inspected. Department of Health official Janet Staloski told a grand jury that the state chose not to inspect abortion clinics to avoid "putting a barrier up to women" who sought abortions. The message that women should be allowed to do whatever they want with their own bodies over time evolved into the reality that doctors could do whatever they want to those women without oversight.
Just this month, the governor of Alabama signed into law the Women's Health and Safety Act. This new law requires that a physician must remain present at an abortion clinic until all of the patients are discharged. It requires clinics to meet the same building code standards as an ambulatory surgical center. It requires that doctors who perform abortions in Alabama must have admitting privileges at a local hospital (something that Bruce E. Norman, the doctor present when the Vasopressin mistake was made, does not have).
A standard defense of Roe v. Wade is that women will have abortions whether they are legal or not. If they are legal, at least we can regulate them, the logic goes. But the same people who make this argument have protested the Women's Health and Safety Act as a back-door effort to take away access to abortion. Planned Parenthood has gone on record as saying that the act (which, remember, requires doctors to remain present with their patients and admit them to the hospital when necessary) will not improve the health and safety of women. Clinic administrators argue that creating extra-wide doorways that can accommodate gurneys will place an undue financial burden on clinics, forcing them to close.
Story Isn't Over
Sometime in early 2013, activity at the New Woman Clinic resumed. The clinic's website advertising abortions had never been taken down. Someone was again answering the phone. And Dr. Norman was seen coming and going from the clinic.
On March 26, the Alabama Department of Health filed a civil complaint against the clinic, which, according to the complaint, continued to offer "abortion services to the public without a license."
In response, the lawyer for Norman made an unexpected defense. Scott Morro told The Birmingham News that so long as Norman performs fewer than 30 abortions a month, the clinic doesn't need a license. Brian Hale, deputy general counsel for the ADPH, said that the issue will have to be settled in court.
At the time of this writing, the website for the New Woman Clinic is still advertising abortions. Presumably, so long as the clinic owner can find a loophole in the law to keep from being regulated, they will continue. If there is another medication error, Bruce Norman or whoever else is minding the sedated patient will have to call an ambulance and take her out the back door and through the alley.
Betsy Childs is the web and publications editor of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.