The grisly dealings of a Florida abortion enterprise
Kermit Gosnell’s sensational trial has brought to public attention the ugly operations of a Philadelphia abortion clinic where the spines of live newborns were snipped with scissors and female patients suffered internal injuries and infections. On May 13, Gosnell was convicted of the first-degree murder of three babies born alive and killed in his clinic, and of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a woman who overdosed after being administered repeat doses of Demerol. He may face the death penalty.
The case prompts the question of how common those and similar practices are. National Review has investigated three Florida abortion clinics, located in Miami, Hialeah, and Miramar. They offer a troubling portrait of America’s abortion industry.
After police were tipped off in 2004, two owners of the clinics, along with some of their staff, were successfully prosecuted for unlicensed medical practice. In 2006, a baby was born alive and killed at one of the clinics, according to witnesses. And some of the clinics’ doctors have a history of harming their patients. Regardless, the clinics remain open today.
The story begins in Illinois in 1987, when a 17-year-old girl suffered a botched abortion. Bleeding profusely, her vagina and cervix lacerated, she was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where she delivered a live baby by C-section, according to a complaint by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. The baby died the same day. The Department of Professional Regulation accepted a proposed settlement from the abortion doctor, Frantz Bazile, putting him on three years’ probation.
Shortly after, apparently, Bazile moved to Florida, connecting with a woman named Belkis Gonzalez. They shared a professional and sexual relationship, according to a complaint filed in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court in Florida in 2009. Details about Gonzalez are scarce; she attended university for only six months but began calling herself a medical assistant, Hialeah police records suggest.
Bazile and Gonzalez went into the abortion business together, partnering with Siomara Senises, the vice president of a Miami clinic. The trio founded a clinic in Hialeah in 1994. Gonzalez and Senises began a third clinic in Miramar in 1999.
In 2001 or 2002, the clinic owners hired Dr. Robelto Osborne. By then, he had already botched two abortions, one in 1996 and another in 2000, according to the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Board of Medicine. Both women suffered internal injuries, and fetus parts were found in their bodies afterward, according to the health department’s findings of fact.
The state consequently revoked Osborne’s medical license in August 2004. Osborne says he didn’t perform the 2000 abortion. Regarding the 1996 case, he says, “There’s a certain amount of complications that are expected,” adding that he lost his license solely because of bad legal representation. His former lawyer disagrees, saying the board had “clearly stated that it was their intent to revoke his license regardless of any arguments that could be made in his defense.”
A few months after the revocation, police were tipped off that unlicensed personnel, including Osborne, were performing abortions and other medical functions in the Miramar clinic. The claim proved true. According to Miramar police records, Osborne said in a sworn statement that he continued working at the clinic even after Senises and Gonzalez had learned about the revocation of his license.
Osborne also said that Senises, who has no medical license, assisted him with abortions. She pleaded no contest to practicing health care without a license and received three years’ probation, beginning in 2008. Gonzalez pleaded no contest to the same charge. Two other staffers were successfully prosecuted, and another “doctor” at the clinic, who lacked a valid license, fled to Trinidad with arrest warrants pending.
As police investigated the unlicensed medical practice, Sycloria Williams, 18, sought an abortion at the Miramar clinic. On July 19, 2006, one of the doctors there, Pierre Jean-Jacque Renelique, gave her preparatory medication to open the cervix, directing her to the Hialeah clinic the next morning, with the abortion scheduled for 2 p.m.
Williams arrived as instructed, but the doctor didn’t. After waiting for hours, she gave birth to a live baby. According to her attorney’s complaint, “the staff began screaming, and pandemonium ensued. Williams watched in horror and shock as her baby writhed with her chest rising and falling as she breathed. [Clinic president] Belkis Gonzalez came running into the room, picked up a large pair of orange shears, and cut the umbilical cord,” which would cause the infant to exsanguinate within two minutes, a medical expert later told Hialeah police.
The Department of Health’s finding of facts stated that “Ms. Gonzalez then proceeded to place the baby and all of its remains in a plastic bag. She then closed the bag and placed it in a trashcan.” Williams later claimed she was given a sedative, cleaned up, and “sent home still in complete shock.”
An anonymous tipster phoned police about what had occurred. Investigators searched the Hialeah clinic three times, discovering a blood-smeared recliner and boxes of aborted fetuses buzzing with flies, said Ralph Gracia, a homicide detective who worked on the case.
On July 21, police interviewed Gonzalez, who said Renelique had successfully broken up and removed the fetus. Renelique at first claimed that he thought he had performed a successful abortion and that he learned otherwise later. He now tells National Review, “It is simple: I was not there.” According to the Department of Health, “Renelique prepared a false medical record when he knew what had actually happened.” Contrary to Gonzalez’s account, the police found the body wholly intact on July 28, 2006, eight days after the infant’s death.
There is significant legal disagreement about what happens when a baby deemed nonviable is born alive and killed. The federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act extends some protection to any live-born baby, including one that has survived an attempted abortion. But interpretations of the law vary, and its enforcement is limited.
Florida’s fetal-homicide law provides some protection for unborn children who have reached viability, though that gestational age is vaguely defined. And Florida bans abortion after viability, unless the life or health of the mother is at stake. But Doe v. Bolton — the companion decision to Roe v. Wade — defined that exemption broadly, to mean not only physical but also mental health and even life circumstances. Florida recently passed legislation providing legal protection for babies born alive.
The autopsy report estimates that the gestational age of Sycloria Williams’s baby was 22 weeks, adding that “the literature shows that fetuses before 24 weeks gestation have basically a 0% survival. . . . [Therefore] the cause of death is extreme prematurity and the manner of death is natural.”
David Waksman, a prosecutor who worked on the case until his retirement in 2009, notes that “Florida and a lot of states said you’re not a person for purposes of being the victim of a crime unless you’re living independently of the mother.” Investigators and prosecutors who worked on the Williams case say they lacked legal backing to bring homicide charges against Gonzalez. The state attorney filed other serious felony charges: tampering with physical evidence and performing an unlicensed medical procedure that resulted in a death. But the case fell apart for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Anthony Rodriguez, the detective who led the investigation, says, “Yeah, I think [Gonzalez] got away with murder.”
Williams brought a civil suit on behalf of herself and the baby, but her attorney, Tom Pennekamp, says he withdrew from the case after “Sycloria kind of dropped off the map.” The court dismissed the case without prejudice for lack of prosecution.
But by then, the law had caught up with Gonzalez. Weeks after the baby’s death, she was arrested and charged with practicing health care without a license, the result of the earlier investigation prompted by the 2004 tip-off to police. She plead no contest, and was sentenced to five years’ probation on December 20, 2007, with the condition that she “not [be] allowed to directly or indirectly [engage in] owning, operating, conducting, managing, or being employed or associated with any health care clinic, health care professional office or health care business establishment.”
The clinics’ corporate records raise suspicions that have never been fully pursued. They show that ownership of the Miramar and Hialeah clinics was passed on to close kin of Gonzalez and Senises; Williams alleged in her complaint that “Belkis Gonzalez and Siomara Senises [have] continued to provide abortion services under the cloak of entities and officers that are mere instrumentalities.” Gonzalez’s probation ended in December 2012, at which point the court could no longer prohibit her from working in medicine. National Review’s investigation revealed that she is regularly present at the Miramar clinic, and a staff member says she is the owner.
In 2008, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration fined the Miramar and Miami clinics for failing to submit a monthly report of “induced terminations of pregnancy.” And in 2010, the agency inspected the Miami clinic and found problems: Bottles of emergency drugs were expired, the defibrillator for the crash cart was not functional, and records were missing or misplaced.
Also disturbing is the history of the doctors employed at the clinics today. Frantz Bazile, who was put on probation in Illinois after allegedly botching the abortion in 1987, practices at the Hialeah clinic. The receptionist who was sanctioned by the State of Florida for unauthorized medical practice said in a sworn statement that David Steven Brown, the medical director at the Miramar clinic, had trained her to do sonograms although she was unlicensed; National Review found no evidence that he has been prosecuted for this. And a doctor named Harvey Craig Roth practices at all three clinics. In 1998, Roth allegedly performed a circumcision that went awry, resulting in “amputation of a portion of the glans penis.” The case was settled, and Roth’s insurance paid out in 2005.
Like the Gosnell case, the story of these Florida clinics illustrates the abortion industry’s sinister underside and the difficulty of exposing it. Women seeking abortion quite reasonably expect confidentiality, but the secrecy also protects unethical doctors. Abortion rates are higher among less-educated women, who may face greater risk of being victimized and have limited recourse to justice when they are. And the charged politics surrounding abortion prompt many to look the other way, even when there is evidence that women and newborn babies are in danger.
How many other clinics have sunken into horror?
– Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.