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Murder: Gosnell guilty verdict hailed on both sides of abortion debate
In a case that attracted national attention, Philadelphia inner-city abortion provider Kermit B. Gosnell was found guilty of first-degree murder Monday in the deaths of three born-alive babies by “snipping” their spines.
Pro-life advocates quickly praised the results but warned that Gosnell is not the only abortionist who flouts laws or engages in grisly activities.
“If Gosnell had severed the spines of those babies before delivering them, many of their deaths would have been legal. America needs to think long and hard about the morality of that,” said Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican and one of several members of Congress who have asked for reports on late-term abortions from all state departments of health.
But pro-choice groups that also applauded the jury’s verdicts urged the country to distinguish Gosnell from reputable providers.
“This case has made clear that we must have and enforce laws that protect access to safe and legal abortion, and we must reject misguided laws that would limit women’s options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell,” said Eric Ferrero, spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“Justice was served to Kermit Gosnell today, and he will pay the price for the atrocities he committed,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We hope that the lessons of the trial do not fade with the verdict. Anti-choice politicians, and their unrelenting efforts to deny women access to safe and legal abortion care, will only drive more women to back-alley butchers like Kermit Gosnell,” she said.
The jury will return May 21 to hear evidence on whether Gosnell should get the death penalty. He has been in prison since a January 2011 report dubbed his West Philadelphia clinic “a house of horrors.”
The 72-year-old physician also was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 overdose death of Karnamaya Mongar, a Virginia woman who was given high levels of sedatives by untrained medical assistants in the clinic. Gosnell was cleared in the death of a fourth baby, who prosecutors say let out a soft whimper before he snipped its neck.
His attorney, Jack McMahon, told reporters after the verdict was read that his client was “disappointed and upset,” but praised the jury for working methodically through more than 260 charges. He said he thought the doctor got a fair trial but the defense felt at times like “salmon swimming upstream” because of the negative media coverage of his client.
Co-defendant Eileen O’Neill, 56, was convicted on several counts of conspiracy, helping to run a corrupt organization and “theft by deception” by providing medical services when she was not a licensed doctor.
On Tuesday morning, a group of black pastors, including the Rev. Alveda King, director of African-American outreach for Gospel of Life Ministries, plan to hold a news conference and go to Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers to investigate whether there are “other Gosnells” in other clinics and whether poor and minority communities are being targeted for abortion clinics.
Pro-choice supporters strongly refute such claims about clinics.
The Gosnell case reverberated far beyond Philadelphia after pro-life groups complained that major media outlets were ignoring the findings about his Women's Medical Society clinic.
As gory details of the practices at the clinic came to light, the case proved deeply embarrassing to state health officials — Pennsylvania authorities had failed to conduct routine inspections of all of its abortion clinics for 15 years by the time the clinic was raided and closed down. Two top state health department officials were eventually fired, and Pennsylvania imposed tougher rules for clinics.
Gosnell did not testify in his defense or call witnesses in the eight-week trial. Prosecutors called 54 witnesses.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Mr. McMahon told the jury that there was no “scientific evidence” that any of the fetuses were alive when their spinal cords were sliced, and the death of Mongar, 41, was a “tragic accident.” Gosnell was providing medical care to poor, mostly minority teens and women, and the prosecution’s case was “elitist” and “racist,” Mr. McMahon said. Any movements were attributed to involuntary spasms or reflexes, Mr. McMahon said. “These are not the movements of a live child.”
The prosecutors said it was murder. “Why would you cut a baby in the back of the neck unless you were killing it?” Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron asked during the trial.
Gosnell also was convicted on dozens of offenses relating to illegal abortions of fetuses older than 24 weeks, running a corrupt business, and violating laws on informed consent and 24-hour waiting periods.
Four staff members pleaded guilty to third-degree murder changes and testified against Gosnell.
The case quickly galvanized pro-life leaders of dozens of organizations, who said the trial had “historic significance” similar to that of the release of Holocaust survivors and the funeral of 14-year-old racism victim Emmett Till. “Let the history books be written that these are the last days of legalized abortion on demand,” leaders of groups such as Pro-Life Action League, Susan B. Anthony List, National Black Pro-Life Union and Priests for Life said in a recent open letter.
Mr. Rizk also blamed Pennsylvania’s abortion laws for driving people to someone like Gosnell. “When states go to extreme lengths to restrict abortion, unscrupulous providers like Gosnell are often a woman’s last resort,” he said. “This is why we work every day to protect the constitutional rights of women to access legal and safe abortion care regardless of income and geography.”
In 2010, that changed: The FBI raided the facility in search of drugs and instead found an active abortion clinic amid unsanitary conditions.
A 2011 grand jury concluded that the clinic was a “prescription [pill] mill” by day and “abortion mill” at night.
Their scathing report led to charges against Gosnell, his wife and the employees.
The trial testimony was often lurid: Gosnell and his staff used filthy materials, including cutting instruments, vaginal probes, and a suction machine that had dried blood on its glass cover. Fetal parts were kept in cabinets, in the basement, in a freezer, and in jars, bags and plastic jugs.
Other fetal remains were put through a garbage disposal or flushed in a toilet. One witness said that when he was asked to address clogged plumbing, he would find fetal arms and other body parts.
Mr. McMahon pushed back, arguing to the jury that every baby was dead at birth and other prosecution claims had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. He asked jurors to acquit his client, saying, “Just because [prosecutors] want it to be that way … doesn’t mean that’s the way it is.”
Mongar, a Bhutanese refugee who was living in Woodbridge, Va., sought an abortion when she was 19 weeks pregnant.
She stopped breathing several hours after being given shots of Demerol and other sedatives, and could not be revived by Gosnell and his staff. She died at a hospital on Nov. 19, 2009.
Assistant medical examiner Dr. Gary Collins testified that he initially said Mongar’s death was accidental, but changed it to “homicide” after he learned of the conditions and untrained staff at the clinic.
Mr. McMahon refuted claims about Mongar’s death, saying that no one on the staff remembered Mongar getting more than 100 milligrams of Demerol throughout the day, and that she died because of an unpredictable drug interaction — she failed to report heart and lung disorders on her clinic admission form.
But one prosecution witness testified that Mongar received more than 150 milligrams.
Prosecutors said Gosnell made millions of dollars over the years from the clinic and owns numerous properties with his wife.
A judge in a civil lawsuit has frozen those assets.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.
Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...
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