The New Yorker Reports on Exploitative Abortion Clinics

by Jillian Kay Melchior

Eyal Press’s latest New Yorker story is a must-read, chronicling the history of Steven Brigham, a doctor who continues to run abortion clinics despite numerous sanctions. “Why is he still in business?” the subhead queries.

Press – himself the son of a doctor who performed abortions — presents a nuanced view but doesn’t hold back from chronicling some of the more gruesome details from Brigham’s clinics:

There were stories of abortions being done without a registered nurse on hand, of blood on the floor, and of drugs being administered by untrained personnel. There was a report of plastic instruments being washed with Dial soap and reused. In 2001, a patient said that, after calling the clinic with emergency complaints two weeks after an abortion, she had been told to “have a shot of rum.” In 2002, a former employee of Brigham’s sent . . . an e-mail in which she described being “witness to a suction machine accident, in which a second trimester procedure was sprayed all over me and got in my eyes and mouth.”

I was surprised at how much this story had in common with one I wrote last year about a Florida-based chain of abortion clinics.

In both instances, physicians had botched abortions, harming the women who were seeking care; in both instances, there was a strange lack of malpractice insurance; in both instances, unlicensed employees were performing medical procedures; and in both instances, the clinic owner had been forbidden from “directly or indirectly” running an abortion shop – and shortly after, ownership was transferred to close kin.

The argument about abortion often centers around the morality of killing the unborn. But Press’s story really hammers home the impact on the vulnerable women who often find themselves exploited at sketchy abortion clinics:

Allegations that Brigham took advantage of women—especially poor women—first surfaced back in Wyomissing, [Pennsylvania] when Planned Parenthood discovered that the “low fees” he advertised weren’t so low. In 1991, Nancy Osgood, of Planned Parenthood, told the Reading Eagle that Brigham’s prices for second-trimester abortions were considerably higher than those of his competitors. In addition, his clinic accepted jewelry and other personal property as collateral from indigent patients, who were then sent to a nearby loan office. Osgood called these practices “noxious.”

. . . Between 2000 and 2008, the over-all abortion rate fell by eight per cent. But among poor women it rose by eighteen per cent. African-American women are nearly four times as likely as white women to get an abortion. This shift is often attributed to rising inequality, with lower-income women having less access to the most effective forms of contraception, less sex education, and less ability to bear the cost of an unanticipated child.

Jen Boulanger [one of Press’s sources in the abortion industry] told me that although many of the patients who complained to her about Brigham’s Allentown clinic were poor, some were middle-class professionals. Shame, not poverty, led many women to expect to be treated shabbily at an abortion clinic. Unscrupulous providers, she argued, exploited this stigma.

Read the whole New Yorker story here.