Monday, July 18, 2022

July 18, 1979: Safe and Legal Gas Gangrene

Gail Ann Vroman had been a very active student at Huntington North High School in Huntington, Indiana. She was active in gymnastics and track as well as the school's Historical Society.

After graduation, Gail got a job as a beautician.

At the age of 20, in the summer of 1979, Gail discovered that she was pregnant. On Saturday, July 13, her boyfriend drove her to Fort Wayne Indiana to undergo an abortion. Gail was about ten weeks into her pregnancy.

The abortion at Fort Wayne Women's Health Organization was not performed by a local doctor but rather by Taskin Ratharathorn from New York. 

Opposition to Regulations

The clinic had only been in operation since June 10 of 1978 and was part of a chain with facilities in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and Wisconsin as well. 

In August of 1978 the clinic joined another Indiana abortion clinic, Women's Pavilion, in its bid to block the state from requiring abortion clinics to adhere to the same standards as other ambulatory surgery centers, saying that increasing licensing requirements would effectively shut down every abortion clinic in the state, despite the fact that one of the four Indianapolis abortion clinics, Indianapolis Women's Center, was licensed under the guidelines. Another clinic, Meridian Women's Clinic, had been licensed but dropped its license after Roe on the grounds that the decision forbade any but the most superficial state oversight.

Janet Craig, director of hospital and institutional services for the Indiana Board of Health, told the Indianapolis Star, "We have no power of enforcement right now. There is no clarification of the law." 

Indiana had originally attempted to require that abortions be performed in a licensed facility or hospital, but that requirement was struck down by the Federal Court decision Arnold vs. Sendak in 1976.  

The provisions that the Women's Pavilion and Women's Health Organization found too onerous included a requirement that the facility have a transfer agreement to a local hospital for treatment of injuries.

Dr. James Brillhart, co-owner of Indianapolis Women's Center, told the Indianapolis Sun that meeting the requirements increased capital costs, including $1,000 for a backup generator, and led to an increased cost of $20 - $25 per abortion. (That's roughly $90 - $114 in 2022.) Brillhart noted that "according to the Supreme Court, you can perform an abortion in a taxicab, if it's done by a licensed physician." He felt that the licensing requirements were medically necessary. He asserted that licensing could keep "unscrupulous individuals, who are just one step ahead of criminal abortionists" from practicing in Indiana.

"If people were not unscrupulous, if good doctors would set these up and run them, if they were viewed as medical facilities rather than investments, regulation wouldn't be necessary. I don't like to see legislation restricting good physicians' practices, but the wrong people take advantage of abortion, and so we need licensing.

The clinics fighting licensing requirements won their case.

Gail's Sickness and Death

Within a few hours after the abortion, Gail showed signs of sickness. At the recommendation of clinic staff, her boyfriend drove her to nearby Lutheran Hospital where she was admitted under the care of Dr. Ramesh Bhat. 

In spite of dialysis performed to try to make up for Gail's deteriorating kidney function, she died at 11:22 am on Wednesday, July 18.  The coroner ruled that the death was caused by clostridium perfringens, or "gas gangrene," which had caused her blood cells to deteriorate and her kidneys to shut down.

Gail's death was investigated by the Centers for Disease Control as well as Allen County health officials. Investigators contacted other women who had undergone abortions at the clinic. I've been unable to find the results of any investigation, and the CDC gave very short shrift to abortion surveillance in general and abortion deaths in particular for 1979 and 1980. Thus there is no way of knowing if the facility fell short in its care of Gail or if her death was just a fluke.

Watch "Slipshod Care or Just a Fluke" on YouTube.


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