The Kermit Gosnell of Florida: Ignoring unsafe abortions and death at the Dadeland Family Planning Center.

How the politics of abortion protects bad clinics.
Feb. 18 2011 7:47 AM

The Sisterhood of Silence

A bad abortion clinic, a dead woman, and a wall of pro-choice denial.

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"When Ellen Williams died after an abortion at the Dadeland Family Planning Clinic, Dade Medical Examiner Joe Davis requested a special investigation. Investigators checked everything they could by law: The clinic indeed had copies of its doctors' licenses; patient records were kept; fetal remains were adequately disposed of.

"In other words, the clinic passed."

The days of gore, fear, and silence hadn't ended with Roe. Janis Compton, the director of the Florida Abortion Rights Action League, admitted to Sontag that there were bad entrepreneurs, drawn to the abortion business by its low capital requirements, steady demand, and cash transactions. "In my gut, I am completely aghast at what goes on at that place," she told Sontag. "But I staunchly oppose anything that would correct this situation in law."

In legislative offices across Florida, the Tropic article shattered a stupor of complacency. Carol Hanson, a pro-choice state representative, dispatched letters to other female lawmakers requesting a hearing to discuss the revelations. "Those of us who intend to keep abortion safe and legal," she argued, "have got to zero in on the word 'safe.' "

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Other legislators resisted.  They called the Dadeland clinic exceptional, warned against undue restrictions, and fretted that focusing attention on the clinics "might be a face-saving move" for Martinez. Pro-choice lobbyists moved quickly to quash talk of changing the law. In a memo to lawmakers, Voice for Choice argued, "The Tropic article clearly illustrates that no matter how restrictive and well-intentioned laws are, greedy and fraudulent professionals will always persist in their pursuit to exploit the most vulnerable of our citizens." The ACLU of Florida agreed: "No matter how many laws are passed, there will always be a very small number of individuals who will disregard the law and disregard their responsibilities to the people they serve. … More laws will not change unscrupulous people's hearts."

Licices plate "If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns."

In Florida, such arguments about the futility of regulation had been made before, but in a different context: gun control. No matter how many innocent people died in shootings, defenders of the right to bear arms found reasons to oppose new laws. They accused the media of hyping the tragedies. They charged that guns were being unfairly singled out from other threats. They insisted that current laws adequately addressed the problem. At the same time, they argued that private negligence defied legislative control. Regulation, they protested, would only impose a "burden on law-abiding citizens."

Liberals dismissed these arguments in the context of gun control but parroted them when the debate shifted to abortion. And some abortion rights advocates went further. Recognizing parallels between the right to privacy and the right to bear arms, they explicitly sought to emulate the National Rifle Association. "We're going to be the new NRA of politics," one of Florida's top pro-choice strategists boasted that summer, shortly after the Webster ruling awakened pro-choice voters. "There are 70 million gun owners. But there are twice as many womb owners."

Janis Compton, FARAL's director, saw a natural alignment between the two issues. She carried a handgun, kept another at home, and proudly displayed her NRA cap at FARAL headquarters, unnerving her feminist colleagues. "The essence of true conservatism," she declared immediately after Webster, "is keeping government out of your private life."

It would take more than a few shootings to soften Compton's hostility to gun laws. She doubted that such laws would reach the criminals at whom they aimed. She also suspected that small invasions of privacy would lead to larger ones. If the government could register guns, Compton reasoned, it could also take them away. She resented the hassles that gun laws imposed on responsible owners. On one occasion, she recalled, a mandatory waiting period of even a few days would have thwarted her husband's purchase of a pistol.

Each of those arguments applied just as well, in Compton's view, to abortion safety laws. Surgical equipment didn't kill women; bad doctors killed women. No law aimed at clinics, their equipment, or their records would fix that. Compton had seen clinic "safety" schemes like Martinez's before—always excessive, always floated by pro-lifers. She and her allies would stop the governor, come what may.

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