In abortion debate, both sides point to Philadelphia trial

Reuters News

4/29/2013 12:04:00 AM - Reuters News

(Editor's Note: Please be advised that this story contains graphic material that may upset some readers)

By Dave Warner

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Philadelphia abortion clinic that prosecutors called a "house of horrors" is now being cited as powerful evidence by both abortion and anti-abortion rights groups.

Advocates on both sides of the issue spoke out as the murder trial of Dr Kermit Gosnell, accused of killing a patient and four infants during late-term abortions at his clinic, headed for closing arguments on Monday in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia.

Gosnell, 72, who ran the now-shuttered Women's Medical Society Clinic in urban West Philadelphia, could face the death penalty if convicted. The case focuses on whether or not the infants were born alive and then killed.

"Abortion is not safe, it never has been, and what happened in Kermit's clinic is not that unusual," said Joe Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League.

Rev. Frank Pavone, director of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, said the often gory trial testimony "will change the conversation ... It'll help people engage and make them realize they're not just talking about a theoretical idea."

Abortion-rights activists said Gosnell is an outlier among predominantly safe and legal abortion providers.

"Gosnell ran a criminal enterprise, not a healthcare facility, and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Shoddy practices revealed in the Gosnell case are proof that safe abortions should be easily accessible to women of all income levels, said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

"This is a peek into the back-alley days, the pre-Roe v. Wade days. It's what too many women experienced when we didn't provide access to safe and clean abortion services," Hogue said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1973 that struck down state laws restricting abortion.

The charges against Gosnell and nine of his employees have added fresh fuel to the debate in the United States about late-term abortions.

It is legal in Pennsylvania to abort a fetus up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. It becomes murder if the infant is fully expelled from the mother alive and then killed, according to a lawyer familiar with Pennsylvania law, who declined to be named given the volatility of the case.

Gosnell is charged with first-degree murder for delivering live babies during late-term abortions and then deliberately severing their spinal cords, prosecutors said. He is also charged with third-degree murder in the death of Karnamaya Mongar, 41, of Virginia, who died after the procedure from a drug overdose, prosecutors said.

The doctor has pleaded not guilty to all charges, contending there is no evidence the babies were alive when they were expelled and that Mongar failed to disclose her full medical history, which may have triggered drug complications.

Testimony in the six-week trial before a seven-woman, five-man jury has depicted a filthy, squalid clinic serving mostly low-income women in the largely black community.

Early in the trial, anti-abortion rights groups criticized the national media for largely ignoring the case.

Day Gardner, the head of the National Black Pro-life Union in Washington, tied the media's initial avoidance of the trial to what she said was deeply ingrained racism in American society, noting that many of Gosnell's patients were poor black women and the doctor himself is black.

The national spotlight would have shown brighter if the victim had been "a blonde, blue-eyed child ... It's very obvious that passion across America is not quite the same when it comes to black children," Gardner said.

Gosnell, who has been in jail since his January 2011 arrest, is being tried along with Eileen O'Neill, a medical graduate student accused of billing patients and insurance companies as if she had been a licensed doctor. Eight other defendants have pleaded guilty to a variety of charges and are awaiting sentencing.

(Additional reporting by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Prudence Crowther)