Erie County’s only legal abortion clinic opened on a rainy September morning in 2003 as police guarded its entrances and more than 100 protesters gathered outside the Professional Building, 1611 Peach St., where the clinic was located.
It quietly closed about three-and-a-half years later due to problems recruiting physicians to perform abortions. Several of the ones hired by the clinic, American Women’s Services, had been disciplined by various medical boards for issues including unprofessional conduct and gross incompetence.
By that time, even some of the region’s most ardent abortion-rights supporters advised women to seek out-of-town clinics for their abortions instead of visiting the Erie clinic.
“It’s not right for women to have to go 90 miles or more to get something they have a legal right to get. That being said, that particular clinic should be closed,” Susan Woodland, then president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization for Women, said in 2008 shortly after the clinic stopped providing abortions.
Since American Women’s Services closed its Erie clinic, women from Erie County must travel 90 miles or more to get an abortion. The closest providers are located in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo.
Not surprisingly, the annual number of county residents who receive abortions has declined since Erie had its own provider, though it has increased slightly in the past two years, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Abortions in Erie County
Here is a look at the annual number of Erie County residents who have received an abortion. Years where abortions were performed in Erie County are marked with *:
2020 — 233
2019 — 215
2018 — 170
2017 — 184
2016 — 184
2015 — 184
2014 — 160
2013 — 179
2012 — 226
2011 — 312
2010 — 301
2009 — 290
2008 — 266
2007 — 243*
2006 — 327*
2005 — 243*
2004 — 353*
2003 — 340*
2002 — 221
Abortion laws in Pennsylvania
The Supreme Court’s possible overturning of Roe v. Wade wouldn’t immediately change Pennsylvania’s abortion laws, as Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto any legislation aimed at restricting or eliminating legal abortions.
But Wolf’s term in office ends January 2023 and the next governor could approve such legislation if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
In truth, getting an abortion is already difficult for women living in northwestern Pennsylvania. Not only do they have to travel at least an hour and 45 minutes for an abortion, they also must follow Pennsylvania law when getting one in the state.
Those laws include state-mandated counseling about abortion at least 24 hours before having the procedure, which may force women to make two trips. Also, minors must have parental permission to get an abortion in Pennsylvania.
Enthusiasm for Erie abortion clinic turned to concern
Abortion-rights supporters were enthusiastic when American Women’s Services opened its Erie clinic in 2003. Women no longer had to travel out of town for an abortion.
But concerns about the clinic began shortly after it opened. The chief executive of American Women’s Services, Steven Brigham, M.D., was not permitted to practice medicine in Pennsylvania and several other states after two women were injured during abortions at his other clinics.
Brigham had also spent 78 days in a New York state jail in 2000 for failing to file corporate income taxes.
The problems extended to the physicians hired to perform abortions at the Erie clinic. Several of them received disciplinary actions.
Harvey Brookman, M.D., had his medical license revoked by the Pennsylvania Board of Medicine in 2006. The action was taken after he was found to have practiced medicine without having medical insurance.
Brookman also perforated a 17-year-old patient’s uterus so badly during a 2002 abortion at a King of Prussia clinic that 24 inches of her colon was sucked into it.
Recruiting physicians became an ongoing problem for the clinic, forcing it to close for more than six months in 2004-05. Clinic officials blamed abortion-rights opponents and the travel time between Erie and American Women’s Services’ other clinics.
Physicians usually rotated each week among several American Women’s Services clinics in Pennsylvania.
“It’s been difficult to recruit doctors. It’s not easy anywhere, but especially in Erie,” Linda Locke, then-chief operating officer for American Women’s Services, said in January 2004. “(Doctors) are afraid to go to Erie because of the anti-choice people. Though I have met them, and I don’t feel they are out to hurt anyone.”
The clinic did reopen and abortions were performed there through early 2007, when a lack of physicians forced it to close once again. No additional abortions were ever performed at the clinic, though equipment wasn’t removed from its six office suites until December 2011.
Three of the suites were acquired in 2013 by the Professional Building Condominium Association due to unpaid membership dues, the others were sold in 2014 at a lien-free tax sale because of unpaid property taxes.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie’s abortion clinic: A story of Steven Brigham and clinic’s closing