Is Planned Parenthood Liable for Client’s Death?

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“We believe in passion for change, for justice, for easing the plight of others, for caring, for living our convictions, and for confronting inhumane acts.”

The words sound inspiring and comforting, like mission statements of many nonprofit groups trying to provide a beacon of light in uncertain times. But this motto isn’t from just any nonprofit; it’s from Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). And if Holly Patterson were alive today, she’d most definitely have something to say to them about their passion to care and confront inhumane acts.

She thought she could trust them. She thought they could help her. So when she learned she was pregnant, the 18-year-old went to a Hayward, California Planned Parenthood clinic where she was prescribed RU-486, a pill that was supposed to terminate her pregnancy and make everything better only now the Almeda County coroner is determining the cause of Holly’s death.

On September 14, only four days after taking the pill, Holly was bleeding severely, doubled over in pain and unable to walk. Her boyfriend drove her to the Valley Care Medical Center (VCMC) in Pleasanton, where she was sent home with painkillers. She returned to the hospital three days later and died of septic shock. An attending physician told her father that Holly had developed a massive bacterial infection because she hadn’t aborted all of the fetus and there were fragments still in her.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) shouldn’t be surprised at Holly Patterson’s death. When trials were being conducted on RU-486 for the FDA, a woman in Canada died from bacterial infection, prompting the trials to be suspended. Since the drug was approved in 2000, one woman died from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, a 21-year-old woman had a heart attack and two 15-year-olds developed life-threatening infections. All of these women were healthy before taking RU-486.

The trials showed that incomplete abortions are the expected outcome in 5 to 8 percent of mifepristone (RU-486) abortions, a condition that is potentially lethal, as in Holly’s case. The FDA limits the prescription of mifepristone to the first 49 days of pregnancy. However, Planned Parenthood Golden Gate advertises on its website that it will give this drug to its patients up to the first 63 days of pregnancy a gross violation of the FDA’s already lenient restrictions. When mifepristone is administered at 63 days, the expected rate of incomplete abortions jumps to 15 percent. While Holly’s pregnancy had not yet reached 63 days, it is unclear if it fell below or just above the 7-week FDA limit.

The second drug prescribed in a medical abortion is misoprostol, which expels the fetus and also causes the greatest likelihood for suffering complications. Apparently, clinic personnel told Holly to administer the drug to herself at home, rather than under a doctor’s supervision. If so, Planned Parenthood could again be guilty of violating FDA restrictions.

Aside from Planned Parenthood’s questionable practices, another issue must be raised. A mifepristone medical abortion requires three clinical visits and access to emergency medical facilities in the event of complications. Holly visited the clinic what seems to be only once and a local hospital twice. Upon her first visit, VCMC emergency personnel did know that Holly had undergone a chemically induced abortion, but in giving her painkillers, they may not have known the severity of her complications. How many other hospital emergency personnel nationwide are unaware that their patients are suffering from severe complications from mifepristone? Such complications could be enormously underreported.

One thing is obvious. When Holly Patterson sought help from Planned Parenthood for an unplanned pregnancy, she left with a burden far greater than any woman could be asked to endure. In handing her a prescription and sending her out the door, Planned Parenthood asked Holly to become her own doctor and diagnose whether her pain and suffering were normal side-effects of RU-486, or whether she needed medical attention.

Planned Parenthood Golden Gate president and CEO Dian Harrison said in a statement, “We extend our deepest sympathies to the family.” But make no mistake. Planned Parenthood is backing away from Holly Patterson even more so after her death than when she was alive.

Paramount in their words to reporters is a denial that RU-486 is somehow unsafe and should be taken off the market for further testing. Planned Parenthood is concerned that the FDA will finally be forced to act upon a citizen petition filed in August 2002 by the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Christian Medical Association and Concerned Women for America, documenting numerous violations the FDA committed in its approval of RU-486. They also fear that publicity over Holly’s death will circumvent their on-going plans to move abortion from the clinic to the bedroom.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs at the PPFA national headquarters in New York said that RU-486 is “really safer than carrying a pregnancy to term.”

After that unsubstantiated claim, Cullins reiterated what seemed to be her greatest concern how Holly’s story would be told rather than quell fears about women’s safety.

“I hope that the media attention around this tragic situation does not scare other women from opting to have a termination procedure through mifepristone medical abortion if that’s something the woman wants to do,” she said.

So much for caring and confronting inhumane acts.

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