What the Philadelphia Abortion Case Tells Us

A Philadelphia physician has been “charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of a patient and seven babies who were born alive and then killed with scissors,” the Associated Press reports. It appears to me this is not a bogus charge concocted by “Right to Life” operatives.

The indictment says Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his mostly unlicensed staff on seven occasions performed “abortions” by inducing labor in women in late stages of pregnancy and killed viable, living babies by severing their spinal chords with scissors. One woman died after being given an overdose of painkiller by an unlicensed staffer.

Dr. Gosnell’s clinic was shut down last year because it was unhygienic and, well, weird. “There were jars, lining shelves, with severed feet that he kept for no medical purpose,” the prosecutor said. He also allowed his unlicensed staff to administer drugs with no supervision; without his even being in the clinic, apparently.

I knew when I saw this story that it would set up much howling and screeching from the Fetus People that abortions should be illegal. What they’re not noticing is that what Dr. Gosnell is accused of already is illegal. That’s, um, why he’s being prosecuted.

Further, if the charges turn out to be true, the argument could be made that women went to Dr. Gosnell for cheap abortions because, under Pennsylvania state law, public funds may not be used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.

Here’s why practices attributed to Dr. Gosnell are illegal already —

First, Pennsylvania law prohibits abortions performed so late in the pregnancy that the fetus might be viable (late second trimester, 23-24 weeks’ gestation), except when the life or health of the mother are seriously threatened by the pregnancy.

In that case, such abortions must be performed in a hospital, not a clinic; and by a physician, not a high-school graduate with some on-the-job training. In fact one of the staffers administering drugs was still in high school.

[Update: According to NARAL, post-viabiity abortions can’t be performed legally in Pennsylvania unless two physicians agree in writing that continuing the pregnancy could take the woman’s life or cause a “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” Under most circumstances the physician must use the procedure most likely to allow the newborn to survive. A second physician must attend the procedure. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3211).]

FYI, Pennsylvania law also provides that women must receive “counseling” to discourage them from having abortions and then wait 24 hours before the procedure is performed. Minors must have parental consent.

(For data, see “State Facts About Abortion: Pennsylvania” and “State Policies in Brief” at Alan Guttmacher Institute.)

And killing or causing the death of a living newborn is homicide in all 50 states, the many apocryphal stories of newborn murder concocted by anti-abortion activists to the contrary. Most states have laws on the books that make causing the death of a viable fetus a criminal act, for that matter. Pennsylvania law makes killing an “unborn child” a criminal act, but I take it this law has been under constitutional challenge and I don’t know if the viability issue has been clarified.

More from the Associated Press report —

Gosnell didn’t advertise, but word got around. Women came from across the city, state and region for illegal late-term abortions, authorities said. They paid $325 for first-trimester abortions and $1,600 to $3,000 for abortions up to 30 weeks. The clinic took in $10,000 to $15,000 a day, authorities said.

“People knew near and far that if you needed a late-term abortion you could go see Dr. Gosnell,” Williams said.

White women from the suburbs were ushered into a separate, slightly cleaner area because Gosnell believed they were more likely to file complaints, Williams said.

Few if any of the unconscious patients knew their babies had been born alive and then killed, prosecutors said. Many were first-time mothers who were told they were 24 weeks pregnant, even if they were much further along, authorities said.

Prosecutors said Gosnell falsified the ultrasound examinations that determine how far along a pregnancy is, teaching his staff to hold the probe in such a way that the fetus would look smaller.

So what Dr. Gosnell is accused of doing already was illegal. He and some of his staff are under indictment and awaiting trial. This is the system working. If abortion is criminalized, thousands of clinics like this will spring up like mushrooms, operating underground, out of sight of the law.

Update: More details from the indictment from Jeralyn at TalkLeft.

15 thoughts on “What the Philadelphia Abortion Case Tells Us

  1. Presuming it’s true – it’s nothing less than revolting. There’s plenty of room under the Clinton formula, ‘safe, legal and rare’, for inspections of private medical facilities. What happened here could easily happen on a large scale if abortions are driven underground. Prohibition won’t work.

    I saw on the History Channel, I think, a show on the old West whch mentioned deaths among prostitutes to the narcotic, Laudnum. I may have misspelled it, but it was an opium derivative which could in high doses, cause a miscarriage. If too much was taken, both mother and fetus died. The death toll was high, so it’s likely they all knew the risk. But they took the chance, rather than have an unwanted child. The point being, women in American history have taken huge risks to end an unwanted pregnancy. They will again, if they must. Why create those circumstances?

  2. In what sense does this case show that “the system is working?” The system LITERALLY stumbled over the victims’ bodies:

    Authorities raided Gosnell’s clinic early last year in search of drug violations and stumbled upon “a house of horrors,” Williams said. Bags and bottles holding aborted fetuses “were scattered throughout the building,” the district attorney said. “There were jars, lining shelves, with severed feet that he kept for no medical purpose.”

    And this was after YEARS of ignoring serious complaints:

    State regulators ignored complaints about Gosnell and the 46 lawsuits filed against him, and made just five annual inspections, most satisfactory, since the clinic opened in 1979, authorities said. The inspections stopped completely in 1993 because of what prosecutors said was the pro-abortion rights attitude that set in after Democratic Gov. Robert Casey, an abortion foe, left office.

  3. From the Report of the Grand Jury:


    There were several oversight agencies that stumbled upon and should have shut down Kermit Gosnell long ago. But none of them did, not even after Karnamaya Mongar’s death. In the end, Gosnell was only caught by accident, when police raided his offices to seize evidence of his illegal prescription selling. Once law enforcement agents went in, they couldn’t help noticing the disgusting conditions, the dazed patients, the discarded fetuses. That is why the complete regulatory collapse that occurred here is so inexcusable. It should have taken
    only one look.

  4. “White women from the suburbs were ushered into a separate, slightly cleaner area because Gosnell believed they were more likely to file complaints, Williams said.”
    Well, isn’t it nice that even in an illegal abortion mill, being white, and better-to-do, still has its priviledges?
    The real telling line in that paragraph was that he did that because “Gosnell believed they were more likely to file complaints.” That speaks volumes to me. What does that (still) say about our nation when even a “physician” providing clearly illegal services knew how differently our law and society would handle a complaint when it’s filed by a white woman versus a woman of color?
    And what does this say if choice is outlawed. That white women will find facilities that are safer and cleaner for them than for non-white women. That if you’re a Congresman’s or a rich businessman’s daughter, you’ll find ‘what you need,’ while the rest ‘get what they deserve.’
    And besides being white, wealth will, of course, still have its priviledges as well – the color green will often make people forget the color of your skin, and get you preferred treatment over the rest of “them.”

    What an aweful, horrible story. There are no words to describe it.
    And yes, this is illegal. This man and his staff should be prosecuted, and if found guilty, given the maximum punishment.
    But, instead of this being used by the anti-choice crowd, we who are pro-choice must get the message out that if you tamper with existing choice laws, THIS will be coming to a town, or street corner near you.
    What this “physician” and his staff did is UNSAFE, and ILLEGAL right now. But, if present laws are tampered with, it will still be unsafe and illegal, just very far from RARE.
    It may also say something about the current employment situation when people will take a job with a homicidal quack like this. Or, maybe not. But it certainly says something about them. I’d rather starve or freeze to death on the street rather than do anything like this for “work.”
    Again, we need to keep reminding people that yes, this is horrible, but this is an unsafe, illegal, and RARE occasion. But only having ANY choice at all, keeps it RARE.

  5. Those of us old enough to remember when abortions were illegal and difficult to obtain recognize this situation. When abortions are hard to obtain, it opens a door to unscrupulous opportunists, who will take advantage of those who have no other means of obtaining an abortion.

    These people will be very difficult to prosecute, because the witnesses will be unwilling to testify due to the social stigma associated with getting an abortion. Thus, the only way the perpetrators will be caught will be by some fluke, even when their operations are outrageous, as this was.

    All perfectly predictable.

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  7. RighKlik,
    Yes, it took far too long, if that was what was going on during all of those months or years.
    And maybe this is a poor analogy, but just like sometimes serial killers aren’t caught after their first or second victim, or even tenth, but after a routine traffic stop, it took too long in this case.
    And yes, again, it took too long, but the point is that he was finally caught. And justice doesn’t mean that you’ll be caught the first time you do something wrong. It means that when you are caught, you will be treated humanely, you will be given rights to a fair trial, and if found guilty, given appropriate punishment.
    The system doesn’t always work the way we wish it did. Or fast enough. But it usually does work.
    Look, a lot of us Liberals could show you ongoing crimes of social and economic injustice that have been going on for centuries, and continue to this day. And those malafactor’s have yet to see that they’re doing something wrong, or do so anyway, either because people are paid off, or not enough of society views that as wrong, or turn away, for whatever reason.
    The point in this “physician’s” horrible case is that what he was doing is rare. It was also unsafe and illegal. He got caught. And he now faces justice. Not blind, revengeful justice, but “the peoples” justice, as befits a nation of laws. Which we used to be. Now, I’m not so sure. But we’ll leavethat discussion for another time.
    If you want to see much more of this type of illegal activity, then by all means outlaw choice. Then, it’ll still be unsafe and illegal, but it won’t be RARE! It’ll be in YOUR town, maybe on YOUR street. Not every illegal abortionist back in the day had a shady practice in a tenement building downtown. Lot’s of them used suburban and rural homes as cover for their unsafe and ILLEGAL practices. And they weren’t as rare as people think. Because whether it’s in the city, the suburbs, or the country, there are women who get pregnant and don’t feel right about going through to term, for a variety of reasons. And you know what’s amazing? Those women didn’t get to be that way alone. There’s one possible virgin birth, the rest of the women had some help, whether they wanted it or not. And I think we need women to be the ones making that determination.
    Keep it safe, legal, and RARE!

  8. Dear RightKlik,

    I really don’t know anything about this particular case, but may I hazard an educated guess why authorities were slow to respond to any complaints about this horrendous abortion/murder clinic. Perhaps because the Operation Rescue people are ALWAYS complaining that perfectly well-run legal abortion clinics are “slaughterhouses,” and the medical staff “baby murderers,” so finally when there is a real baby murderer, maybe the authorities don’t take it seriously. You know that old story about the “boy who cried wolf,” don’t you?


    Like I said, I don’t know anything about this particular case – how many complaints were made, who made them, did the authorities investigate these complaints, etc. But I can see how prosecutors and police get pretty tired of hearing endless accusations of “baby murder” which emanate daily from the megaphones of Operation Rescue fanatics as they stalk, harass, threaten and occasionally murder medical staff and even patients at abortion clinics.

  9. Candide — I wondered the same thing.

    I really would like to know why women went to Gosnell. If these were elective abortions, why did they wait so long? Was it too hard to come up with the money to pay for one? Was it personal denial they were pregnant? Is the waiting list at the good clinics too long?

    There are many, many, reasons why elective abortions should be done as early in the pregnancy as possible, preferably in the first trimester. It’s a simple and safe procedure for the woman if done under proper medical conditions, whereas late abortions are much more dangerous.

    And, frankly, if you want to abort because you don’t want to go through the pregnancy, which I understand, waiting until the third trimester makes no sense. At that point, you’ve pretty much gone through the pregnancy.

    I understand that young teens and rape victims sometimes deny even to themselves they are pregnant until they pretty far along, and I sincerely believe allowances should be made for that. But under most circumstances a woman doesn’t happily go through six or more months of pregnancy and then change her mind about it. They must have been thinking about aborting much sooner than the third trimester.

    I really wish we could have a sensible national discussion about these matters without rabid Fetus People downing everyone else out.

  10. This man sounds like a psychopathic MISOGYNIST. It’s like an Ob/gyn Dr. Mengele…
    So creepy! I am riveted by his need to keep the fetuses around him. It is like he was a serial killer of infants….The worst thing about this of course is that it is just going to fuel the pro-lifers….such a strange and hideous tragedy…

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