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Murder Case Puts Spotlight On Abortion Clinic Rules

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Murder Case Puts Spotlight On Abortion Clinic Rules

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Murder Case Puts Spotlight On Abortion Clinic Rules

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Lynn Neary.

In Philadelphia, a murder case involving a sordid abortion clinic is fueling debate over how clinics should be run. Several states are considering stricter regulations.

But as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, abortion-rights groups say that could force some clinics to close, and make abortions more expensive.

We warn you that this report has language that might not be appropriate for young listeners.

KATHY LOHR: Ebony Behlin says five years ago, she went to Kermit Gosnell's clinic in Philadelphia to get an abortion. The single mother had two children, and says she couldn't afford to care for another. She says back then, she didn't see the filthy conditions described in a grand jury report.

Ms. EBONY BEHLIN: When I went, it seemed clean to me. I would have never went to no doctor's office that I didnt feel, you know, that wasn't sanitary enough for me. I dont know if procedures declined between then and now.

(Soundbite of a roadway)

LOHR: The red-brick building at 38th and Lancaster, where the clinic was located, is deserted now. Dead plants litter the window sill. A few sympathy cards are taped to the front door.

The grand jury report says the conditions inside the clinic were squalid, patients were oversedated, and the staff was unlicensed. The report says babies were born and then killed when Gosnell severed their spines with scissors.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams charged Gosnell with eight counts of murder.

Mr. SETH WILLIAMS (District Attorney, Philadelphia): In my mind, this is not about abortion. You know, it's my job to prosecute these crimes because clearly, it is a crime for children to be born live and then murdered.

LOHR: But the D.A. says he knew the case would fuel debate over abortion - and it has. It's compelled some clinics to respond by opening their doors.

Ms. ELIZABETH BARNES (Executive Director, Philadelphia Women's Center): We're in the waiting room of the Philadelphia Women's Center. The Philadelphia Women's Center has been in operation, serving women, since just around the time of Roe.

LOHR: Executive Director Elizabeth Barnes shows me around the clinic. Although no patients are here today, the waiting room is bright and clean. Colorful artwork adorns the walls, and journals sit on tables.

Barnes says the Gosnell incident has resulted in a political attack on clinics.

Ms. BARNES: Dr. Gosnell's clinic was illegal, and it is exactly what illegal abortion care looks like. And what we're hearing is a push for new regulations. And we actually have a set of regulations in Pennsylvania that had they been enforced, would have prevented Gosnell's office from staying open all these years and hurting so many people.

LOHR: Some abortion opponents in Pennsylvania and other states say the regulations, even if enforced, were not enough. Delaware, Maryland and Oklahoma are among the states looking into stricter regulations in the wake of the Gosnell incident. About a week ago, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that requires most clinics to be regulated as ambulatory surgical centers.

Daniel McConchie is with Americans United for Life.

DANIEL MCCONCHIE (Vice President, Government Affairs, Americans United for Life): Ambulatory Surgical Centers are places in which surgeries are being done, in which a person doesnt need to stay overnight. And so we dont see that this is singling out abortion clinics in any way. But rather, this is raising the standard of abortion clinics to meet those same standards that other surgical centers have to do in their state.

LOHR: But Vicki Saporta, with the National Abortion Federation, says these laws don't make abortion safer.

Ms. VICKI SAPORTA (President/CEO, National Abortion Federation): They regulate the width of hallways. In one situation, they actually required two separate restrooms for staff. What it does is increase costs, and reduce the availability of services.

LOHR: In 2004, Texas passed a law requiring clinics to meet surgical center standards if they perform abortions at 16 weeks or later. As a result, Saporta says, those procedures were not available for about a year in Texas, and the number of licensed providers fell from 20 in 2003, to just four by 2007. The number of providers also declined dramatically in South Carolina, after that state passed a similar law.

Daniel McConchie says there's even more commitment now to get tighter restrictions approved.

Mr. MCCONCHIE: I dont think that this is going to stop, 'cause I dont think the Gosnell situation is going to disappear for awhile. He is going to go to trial. And frankly, the horrific nature of what went on at his clinic is something that people just don't easily forget.

LOHR: Some anti-abortion activists in Philadelphia say they hope to raise money as a result of the Gosnell case - enough to buy his clinic in west Philadelphia and turn it into a crisis pregnancy center, which would not offer abortion.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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