Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Blast from the Past: Calling the NAF Hotline

CALLER: Since you said that you would not inform a consumer of anything specific unless there was a major problem, in which case the person would no longer be a [National Abortion Federation] member, what do you do in the case of something like Lichtenberg in Chicago, where he had that 13-year-old girl die? Would you tell a consumer about that if she asked if anyone had died at that clinic?

NAF SPOKESWOMAN: Well, I don't have that information, and our -- the people that work the hotline don't have that information readily available right now. Their basic goal is to refer them to a NAF member clinic, and that's what they do.
I taped that conversation with Susan Shapiro of NAF on October 19, 1995, while I was doing research for Lime 5. What Ms. Shapiro evidently didn't know is that I'd taped another very interesting conversation with one of their referral hotline counselors just the previous day. Posing as a woman scheduled for an abortion at Edward Allred's Albany clinic in Chicago, I expressed misgivings. I said that I'd heard of a patient death there. The counselor had assured me, "All of the complications are reported here, and if there was an excessive amount of complications, they would not be a member of the National Abortion Federation." She described Albany's abortionist, Steve Lichtenberg, as, "a very, very excellent doctor, very well respected." She dismissed the death as "just a rumor."

I called back later and told the counselor that someone had told me to ask about Deanna Bell. (Thirteen-year-old Deanna had died at Albany after an abortion by Lichtenberg.) The counsellor put me on hold, then came back and said that I was confused, that I was thinking of Becky Bell. Becky, the counselor told me, had died from "an illegal abortion. She hadn't called the National Abortion Federation. She obviously did not go to a NAF member." I insisted that I had the girl's name correct -- it was Deanna, not Becky -- and that the abortion had been at Albany. The counselor was adamant. Whoever had told me that someone named Deanna Bell had died after an abortion at Albany "might be an anti-choice person."

There is no doubt in my mind that the counselor was shocked and confused when I could put a name to the rumored dead girl. As I sat on hold, I imagined the counselor seeking information, wanting to know if the story of Deanna's death was true. And I imagine that somebody said to her, "She must be thinking of Becky Bell." (Becky Bell had been the furthest thing from my mind; I'd chosen the Deanna Bell case because Albany was part of Family Planning Associates Medical Group, NAF's flagship chain of abortion clinics, and because Lichtenberg is a high-profile member who often trains his fellow abortionists at NAF Risk Management Seminars). I believe that Susan Shapiro was telling the truth when she said that NAF didn't give hotline counselors information on malpractice and death at NAF clinics. After all, it is easier to get people to sell a product they believe in.

It is also entirely possible that whoever the counselor consulted was equally in the dark about Deanna Bell's fatal encounter with Steve Lichtenberg. After Deanna's death, Albany sent a thank-you letter, signed by Lichtenberg, to the hospital that had referred Deanna to them, describing her abortion as "uneventful." Either abortion deaths are so common as to be unworthy of comment, or Lichtenberg and his staff were hoping that they could send a 13-year-old girl out under a sheet without anybody noticing.
CALLER: Okay, and if they asked if there was malpractice at that facility, or by that practitioner, would you inform them?

NAF SPOKESWOMAN: We don't have that -- No, we would not inform them of anything specific, unless there was a problem. Then they wouldn't be NAF members if there was something -- if there was a serious problem, and if the complications were -- were serious, you know.

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