Toxic Exports: Harvey Karman, Planned Parenthood, and the Exploitation of Rape Victims

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D.

NEW YORK, May 10 (C-FAM) An effort to advance abortion by exploiting women raped in war stirs memories of an earlier campaign, its dangerous gadgetry, and a grisly abortionist now on trial for murder.

A new political campaign seeks to overturn a U.S. prohibition against funding abortions overseas, framing the procedure as humanitarian aid. That’s despite the disastrous consequences of a 1970s experiment using the plight of pregnant women in conflict areas to extend abortion, which became a cover for an abortion gadfly named Harvey Karman to test new and controversial abortion devices. In 1972, he used one in collaboration with Kermit Gosnell in what became known as the Mothers Day Massacre.

Karman’s “consuming passion” for abortion was matched only by his “incessant self-promotion.”

During the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, Pakistani soldiers raped hundreds of thousands of women and many became pregnant. While the Muslim country only permitted abortion to save the life of the mother, the Bangladesh government waived the restriction for those raped during the war.

The following year, a small group of abortion experts arrived in Bangladesh in a partnership between the International Planned Parenthood Federation and a U.S.-based group. Planned Parenthood invited Karman to train local health workers to perform abortions, despite his earlier criminal conviction for performing illegal abortions and his having no credentials save a degree in psychology. Authorities had arrested Karman five times, including when his 1955 attempt to induce an abortion using a nutcracker caused a woman’s death.

In Bangladesh, Karman’s preferred method for early abortion involved a manual vacuum device he invented. Many of the women’s pregnancies were too advanced for that approach. Instead, Karman used a “super coil” made up of sharp plastic strips and inserted it into the woman’s uterus. He boasted that both devices could be made for pennies and reused hundreds of times, but did not discuss sterilizing them between patients. Reports indicate the women suffered a high rate of complications from the super coil.

Upon returning to the U.S., Karman teamed up with Kermit Gosnell in a 1972 publicity stunt intended to promote the super coil. Merle Goldberg, the pro-abortion activist who had instigated the Planned Parenthood mission to Bangladesh, bussed poor women with late-term pregnancies to Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia for abortions. The stunt turned disastrous when nine of fifteen women suffered serious complications.

Prosecutors charged Karman with practicing medicine without a license. His testimony hinged on technicalities: He admitted that he inserted a coil and might have “eased out” fetal material with forceps, but emphasized that he went no farther than the cervical canal. Another court later overturned his conviction.

The Centers for Disease Control issued a report warning that the method carried significant risk. In response, Goldberg defended the super-coil method. In an interview with a feminist newsletter, she said there was “no contest” between super coil and other second-trimester techniques, and she would choose the super-coil “hands down” if she wanted a late-term abortion.

When Karman died in 2008, a Planned Parenthood director credited him with doing “more for safe abortion around the world than practically any other person in the world.”

Karman’s former colleague Gosnell currently awaits a verdict on charges filed in 2010 of murdering one woman and several newborns in his Philadelphia abortion clinic.

Rebecca Oas is the Associate Director of Research for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). Her article first appeared in the Friday Fax, an internet report published weekly by C-FAM, a New York and Washington DC-based research institute (

[Note: Some background articles about the recent efforts to promote abortion for women raped during war are included here: New York Times article, Abortion and Women Overseas, adds its sales pitch to those in the UK and EU reported in European Leaders Use Laws of War to Pressure US to Fund Abortions in Africa. It’s one thing for other nations to promote this, but American laws supposedly prohibit use of foreign aid to fund any abortion activities abroad. For a historical background on these laws read a Congressional Research Service Report titled Abortion and Family Planning-Related Provisions in U.S. Foreign Assistance Law and Policy. As the above article by Oas reminds us that safe abortion is not necessary the end result of liberal policy. Voluntary measures to prevent pregnancies of rape victims certainly should be made obtainable to them, but supporting the strategy to expand Planned Parenthood services and further globalize the left’s abortion agenda may not be as safe as it has been sold.]

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