Inquirer Editorial: Clinic deaths spur action

Posted: February 18, 2011

Gov. Corbett sent an important signal with his firing of six state employees and his order that abortion clinics in Pennsylvania be inspected by state health officials at least once a year.

In the wake of murder charges against abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia, state government needed to affirm its responsibilities. It has a duty to ensure proper health-care standards at freestanding clinics, and to enforce the state's abortion control act.

Those laws were already on the books. But as a Philadelphia grand jury pointed out, state bureaucrats had been looking the other way since the mid-1990s. Gosnell's clinic had not been inspected since 1993.

"People weren't doing their jobs," Corbett said. "It was government not running at all."

Then-Gov. Edward Rendell ordered inspections of clinics last year after federal agents raided Gosnell's practice and found a horror show of fetal remains and medical waste. But the indictments against Gosnell and several employees didn't come until the day after Rendell left office, leaving questions about who in Harrisburg should answer for these apparent failures.

Corbett's actions make clear: the buck stops with him. The governor said he will overhaul the Departments of Health and State, which inspect health facilities and license medical professionals.

The 20 freestanding clinics that perform abortions in Pennsylvania will be inspected annually, and will be subject to random, unannounced inspections. The two state agencies also will set up computerized tracking of complaints and investigations into clinics.

In addition, the governor has fired six state employees who had a role in the oversight, including the former acting Department of State secretary, Basil Merenda, and four top government lawyers. At least 17 current and former state employees have been touched by the scandal.

Such accountability at the state level is welcome. Likewise, responsible providers of abortion services welcome the inspections; they already were working under standards tougher than those set by the state. Corbett's actions verify that the state will carry out its duties.

"Women in Pennsylvania should feel comfortable and secure when seeking reproductive health care," said Dayle Steinberg, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "And this can only help women feel more confident about the current standards being enforced."

There's another message to take away from the governor's announcement: The laws on the books were sufficient, had they been followed. Harrisburg doesn't need to engage in a crackdown on abortion providers. It simply needs to enforce the laws that already exist.

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