Deputy mayor faces down abortion foes

Posted: June 02, 2011

Two pro-life advocates confronted the city's top health official Thursday about his past medical referrals to West Philadelphia "House of Horrors" abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.

Donald Schwarz, the city's deputy mayor for health and opportunity, and City Solicitor Shelly Smith had just finished testifying in front of a state Senate committee panel that is reviewing the Gosnell case.

Edel Finnegan, the executive director of Pro Life Union, approached the commissioner and asked him if he secured parental permission for the teenagers he sent in the mid-90's to Gosnell's practice, The Women's Health Society.

"At the time, everybody followed the rules for abortion," Schwarz told her and another Pro Life Union volunteer in front of reporters.

Schwarz said that he stopped sending patients to the practice when some of them returned with sexually transmitted diseases. He said that he followed up with a hand-delivered complaint to the state Secretary of Health, but never heard back about his concerns.

Schwarz and Smith testified before the state Senate local government committee, headed by Sen. John Eichelberger, Jr. (R-Blair Township).

"We want to make sure that this horror story doesn't get told again," said state Sen. Mike Stack (D-Northeast Philadelphia)

Since the Gosnell grand-jury report was released earlier this year, charging Gosnell with the deaths of a woman and seven babies, the city's health department has stepped up efforts to provide citizens with information on how and where to lodge complaints, Schwarz said. They can call 3-1-1 for contact information or access it on the city website.

Also, any complaints received by the department will be relayed by a staffer to the state "in a timely manner," he said.

The city had no authority to shut down Gosnell's clinic because abortion facilities fall under the state's jurisdiction, Smith said. If the city interferes in state oversight of such matters, it could result in a lawsuit by the provider. The city's authority over abortion clinics is limited to business and building codes, she said.

"The city role in regulating abortion facilities is limited," Smith said. State regulations prohibit the city from passing its own laws on abortion regulation, she said.

Eichelberger questioned the city's take on the laws.

"Do you think it's an acceptable position to simply say, 'It's not our responsibility in Philadelphia?'" he asked. " 'We don't have the power. We're going to refer you to the appropriate state inspections and let them handle it' "

"To characterize the city's position as 'tough luck' for the people who suffered as a result of these consequences is inappropriate," Smith said, adding that the regulations that apply to abortion clinics places responsibility to oversee them on the state Department of Health.

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