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Labor and delivery

A gruesome Florida abortion saga reveals sordid-and possibly illegal-practices in late-term procedures

"It's a women's clinic . . . My friend is having an abortion and the baby was born alive. . . . They're not allowing her to use the phone there. They're wanting the baby to die! . . . and she's not wanting that to happen."

That was a portion of the 911 call to the Orlando Fire Department on April 2, when a 34-year-old woman named Angele (who asked that only her first name be used) claims to have delivered a live baby during a botched abortion at the EPOC Clinic-and that the child died after clinic workers refused to render aid or call for help (see "Rowan's story," WORLD, May 7).

On April 27, Orange County, Fla., Chief Medical Examiner Jan Garavaglia prepared her report on the death of the boy, whom Angele named Rowan. Dr. Garavaglia-who is a bit of a celebrity with her own show on the Discovery Health Channel-found "no forensic evidence" that Rowan had been born alive. Dr. Garavaglia did conclude that Rowan was a baby, including in her report a physical description of the boy having red, slightly wrinkled skin, normal facial features, tiny fingernails, and hair on his head.

That's not what abortion workers at the EPOC Clinic told the Orlando Fire Department (OFD). Clinic workers told OFD medical rescuers that an abortion patient had "passed some tissue," was "hysterical," and that no live baby had been born. A spokeperson for abortionist and clinic owner James Scott Pendergraft later told reporters that what Angele claimed "absolutely never happened."

The EPOC Clinic is one of six Florida abortion businesses owned by Dr. Pendergraft, a self-avowed empire builder who in 2000 told BusinessWeek he dreamed of expanding his chain of clinics up the Sunshine State's east coast all the way to his home state of North Carolina.

But a seven-month federal prison stint stemming from a 2000 extortion conviction stalled those plans. (The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 2002, but left open the possibility of retrying Dr. Pendergraft and another man on conspiracy charges.) Now, the incident at the EPOC Clinic could spell further trouble for the abortionist-particularly in light of revelations that his employees may have deceived fire and law enforcement officials.

An OFD paramedic, who asked that his name be withheld to protect his job, said that at 10:23 a.m. on April 2 a friend of Angele's, who had driven her to the abortion clinic for day two of a "labor and delivery" abortion procedure, called 911 to report that the baby had been born alive. Three paramedics and one emergency medical technician sped to the scene at 609 Virginia Dr. They were greeted outside by an EPOC Clinic worker who told them that no baby had been born alive-that such a thing wasn't even possible. Instead, a woman scheduled for an abortion had "passed some tissue," was "hysterical," and was refusing to hand "the tissue" over to clinic workers.

According to the OFD paramedic who spoke with WORLD, fire personnel were not aware the "tissue" in question was in reality a fully formed baby boy. That, along with clinic workers' assertion that Angele was clinging hysterically to "the tissue," would explain why fire department medical workers, in their report, noted that they had assisted the Orlando Police Department (OPD) in handling a "disturbing the peace" call.

Dr. Pendergraft has told WORLD he will not comment on the April 2 incident.

The OFD paramedic's story matches OPD Officer Jonathan Pinder's account of events. One of two OPD officers to respond to the scene, Mr. Pinder told WORLD that the fire department "called us in reference to releasing the baby. I guess [Angele] wanted to hold onto the fetus, and the clinic had some concerns that she wouldn't release it."

When Mr. Pinder arrived, "the fire guy told us the baby had already been turned over. I made contact with [Angele] as a courtesy," and helped Angele and her friend call a funeral home and a cab.

According to the OFD paramedic WORLD spoke with, EPOC Clinic workers told fire department responders that the situation inside the clinic was under control and that a doctor was supervising the whole affair. That conflicts with a complaint that Liberty Counsel, a conservative public interest law firm, lodged with the Florida Department of Health and Florida's Agency for Healthcare Administration (AHCA). The complaints cited several violations of Florida law in the April 2 incident, including the absence of a doctor during the abortion procedure.

The procedure in question is called a "labor and delivery" (L&D) abortion. In 2000, Jill Stanek, a registered nurse who worked in the labor and delivery department of Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., testified before Congress in support of the Born Alive Infant Protection Act of 2000. According to Ms. Stanek's testimony, Christ Hospital clinicians when performing L&D abortions medically induced premature cervical dilation, so that "the small, pre-baby drops out of the uterus, oftentimes alive." Ms. Stanek went on to tell the congressional panel about infants born alive and, limbs flailing weakly, left to die in the L&D ward's "soiled utility room."

Christ Hospital isn't the only institution performing L&D abortions. In March 2001, Washington C. Hill, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, gave a presentation in which he described the L&D procedure. The slideshow that accompanied his lecture noted that "success [was] dependent on fetal demise," while "complications" included "live birth."

Last week, Ms. Stanek told WORLD that hospitals and abortion clinics approach L&D abortion differently. "Hospitals don't kill the baby before they initiate the procedure. They have more of a mentality of a covert type of killing, of inducing prematurely and letting them die 'naturally,'" sometimes by allowing them to suffocate in the birth canal. Abortion clinics, however, try to kill the baby before inducing labor, often by injecting the baby's heart with digoxin.

The autopsy findings of Dr. Garavaglia, the medical examiner, verified Angele's claim that Harold Perper, the EPOC Clinic worker who induced her premature labor in preparation to abort Rowan, never injected the baby with digoxin. The examiner found no puncture wounds in the baby's chest. Neither did Dr. Garavaglia find any evidence that the baby had breathed after birth, leading her to report that "no forensic evidence" suggested he had been born alive.

But breathing is only one of four signs of live birth according to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act-any one of which mandates that medical workers provide lifesaving medical care. The other three life signs are a beating heart, a pulsating umbilical cord, or movement of voluntary muscles.

Angele, meanwhile, has said that Rowan both moved and grasped her finger with his hand-leading her to instantly regret her decision to abort. Her story did not surprise a former medical assistant who had been in training to do L&D abortions at Dr. Pendergraft's Hyde Park clinic. "When I was in training to do second trimester abortions, I was told that we would have [women] deliver into the toilet so that if the baby happens to be alive, that it drowns," said the former worker, who requested anonymity because she feared Dr. Pendergraft.

The medical assistant said she had never seen a baby born alive, but that co-workers at the clinic told her they had. "They would see them move or make a little sound, and other people would say that was involuntary. I didn't believe that and neither did they."

According to the medical assistant, all babies, dead or alive, were stuffed into red biohazard bags for later pickup by a medical waste service. She herself had delivered women with no doctor present, and disposed of babies' bodies that way. She added that no doctor was present during most deliveries, leaving medical assistants, and often unlicensed workers to care for patients. When she worked for Dr. Pendergraft, she said, she was one of two licensed workers among 10 on staff.

Florida's AHCA has uncovered late-term abortion problems with the clinic before. In a 2003 survey it said in 11 out of 11 third-trimester abortions sampled, the facility failed to have two physicians certify "to a reasonable degree of medical probability" that the abortions were necessary to save the life or preserve the health of the woman as required by Florida law. AHCA allowed the clinic to amend its records to "correct" the discrepancies.

During one incident, the medical assistant said, she delivered a 28-week-old baby dead while Dr. Pendergraft was out having lunch. "When I turned it over [on its side], the baby's hands went together like it was praying. . . . I was waiting for it to scream. . . . It looked so much like a living baby." That, she says, is when she decided she couldn't work there anymore.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.