PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Former Gov. Ed Rendell said Friday he was "flabbergasted" when he found out last year that the state Health Department didn't think its authority extended to abortion clinics such as the one in Philadelphia where prosecutors say a doctor used scissors to kill viable babies.
Rendell, a Democrat whose second term as governor ended last week, said in a statement that he ordered increased inspections after a clinic raid early last year yielded gruesome accounts of bloody floors and baby parts in jars. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who ran the clinic, was charged this week with murdering seven babies and one woman who went to him for an abortion.
"I was flabbergasted to learn that the Department of Health did not think their authority to protect public health extended to clinics offering abortion services," Rendell, also a two-term Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, said in a statement released through a spokeswoman.
"When I found this out, as a result of the press on the Gosnell case, I immediately directed the them to inspect these facilities," Rendell said. "It was simply preposterous that the department took this position, ever."
A 261-page grand jury indictment released this week against Gosnell and other clinic staff members details a gruesome litany of failures and refusals to uphold even the most basic public health guidelines. It lays out a long list of regulatory failures by the Department of Health and other agencies.
In its report, the grand jury said the department and other agencies - including the Department of State, under which the Board of Medicine falls - allowed Gosnell's clinic to operate nearly unimpeded since the late '70s. It hadn't been inspected since 1993.
A spokeswoman for newly installed Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, said Thursday there are 22 registered abortion providers in Pennsylvania, and all of them were inspected in September and November.
Since the grand jury's report was released Wednesday, the Health Department has not commented and has referred inquiries to Corbett's office.
The grand jury said politics played a role in the abortion-oversight issues.
In its report, the panel said the Health Department "decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all."
Health Department lawyers changed their opinions and advice "to suit the policy preferences of different governors," the report said. The department dropped its policy of annual inspections in the mid-1990s under Gov. Tom Ridge, who supported abortion rights, the report said.
A health department lawyer testified about a 1999 meeting of high-level state officials "at which a decision was made not to accept a recommendation to reinstitute regular inspections of abortion clinics," citing a concern that routine inspections would lead to "less abortion facilities, less access to women to have an abortion."
Rendell said Thursday that he "had no knowledge that was the policy of the Ridge administration, nor that the policy was being continued. The Department of Health never reached out to me to discuss what the policy should be."
Ridge has not commented on the report. The Associated Press has sought his comment through his representatives.
Gosnell, 69, a family practice physician not certified to perform abortions, was arraigned Thursday on charges of murdering seven babies and one patient. His attorney has declined to comment.
Authorities allege Gosnell and his undertrained - sometimes untrained - workers used unsanitary equipment to induce labor in very late-term pregnancies, the viable babies born alive and killed with scissors to the spine, and their body parts left in jars.