WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
If you're like me and have never heard of this case, well, strap in, because you're in for a wild, disgusting and ultimately horrific ride.
Kermit Barron Gosnell, a name that, before today, I thought was reserved for frogs, was an American doctor and abortion provider. He operated the Women's Medical Society clinic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 2011, Gosnell and other employees were charged with 8 counts of murder, 24 felony counts of performing illegal abortions beyond Pennsylvania's 24-week limit, and 227 misdemeanor counts of violating the 24-hour informed consent law. The murder charge came from an adult patient who had died following an abortion, and 7 newborns who were said to have been born alive and killed by Gosnell.
On May 13, 2013, Gosnell was convicted of first degree murder in the deaths of 3 of the newborns, and involuntary manslaughter for the death of his adult patient. He was also convicted of other lesser accounts. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
KERMIT'S CAREER (1)
Kermit Gosnell was born on February 9, 1941 to a gas station operator and government clerk. He graduated from high school in 1959, and then graduated from Dickinson College thereafter. He received his medical degree in 1966. He spent much of his early career practicing medicine among the poor: drug addicts, the impoverished and teens who needed aid. He was a proponent of abortion rights throughout the 60s and 70s, and opened his own abortion clinic in 1972. He said, "as a physician, I am very concerned about the sanctity of life. But it is for this precise reason that I provide abortions for women who want and need them."
He was a respected man in his community, and a finalist for "Young Philadelphian of the Year" for his work at the halfway house. But in the same year, he performed 15 televised abortions, in which 9 women complained of complications after the procedure.
In his personal life, Gosnell was married 3 times. He had 2 children with his current wife, Pearl, who worked at the clinic with him. He had 4 children from previous marriages.
In 2011, it was becoming well known that he was providing abortions to poor minority and immigrant women. He was charging between $1,600 and $3,000 for late term abortions. Before the raid that lead to his arrest, there were quite a few complaints against Gosnell's practice in the many years before, including: lack of nurses in recovery room, employing unlicensed personnel, a death of a patient who died 3 days after her abortion, inappropriate logging/storing of vaccines and inappropriate refrigerators, and a few other patient complaints. In all, there were 46 known complaints against him in 32 years. For some reason, these complaints were largely overlooked by regulators.
THE HORRIFYING TRUTH OF GOSNELL'S CLINIC
On top of all of his previous complaints, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had caught wind that Gosnell was illegally prescribing prescription drugs. Thus, they acquired a search warrant and raided the clinic. What they found was far beyond the illegal drugs they expected. (1)
They found blood on the floor. The place stank like urine. A flea-infested cat was wandering the facility, and there was cat poop on the stairs. Women awaiting abortions were semi-conscious, moaning in the waiting room, and in the recovery room, women sat on dirty recliners under blood stained blankets. The women had been sedated by unlicensed staff, and they found that a patient had died at the facility months prior. (2)
The surgical rooms revealed instruments that weren't sterile, equipment that was rusty and tools that were outdated. The oxygen equipment hadn't been inspected. Suction tubing was corroded, there was no functioning resuscitation machine. In one of the most horrifying finds, the team discovered the fetal remains of aborted fetuses "haphazardly stored throughout the clinic - in bags, milk jugs, orange juice cartons, and even in cat-food containers." (2)
Gosnell admitted that at least 10 to 20 percent of the fetuses were beyond the 24-week limit that Pennsylvania law allows for abortions. Obviously, Gosnell's license was quickly suspended, and the clinic began to be closed down. It was estimated that 40% of the second trimester abortions he performed were beyond 24 weeks, meaning he likely performed 4-5 illegal abortions every week. (2)
He was not performing safe late-term abortions. In the United States, less than 1% of abortions occur after 24 weeks, constituting a "late-term" abortion. Late term abortions nearly always conducted in the event of severe health risk to the mother, or a detected lethal fetal abnormality. Essentially, unless it is extremely likely that the mother could experience a serious threat of death because of the pregnancy, or the child would die immediately after birth, late-term abortions are not (legally) performed. There are safe methods of aborting a fetus late term. It is important to know that late term abortions are not late-term as in at 38-weeks. Women are not trying to abort the babies they carried to full-term. (3)
But of course, in this case, there are desperate women who wanted an abortion later in their pregnancy than is common (1.3% of abortions take place after the 21st week, and only 1% take place after 24). Women seeking late-term abortions are typically raising children alone, depressed or addicted, experiencing domestic violence, unable to afford or access an abortion before the cut-off, or are young and experiencing a first unexpected pregnancy. They had to travel to different states to access abortions, if they could afford one. (4)
All of this to say, most women who get abortions get them early, and most women who are in later stages of pregnancy are planning to keep the baby. But some women are extremely desperate, and those are the ones who wound up in Dr. Gosnell's office.
For his late-term abortions, he would induce labor, which resulted in a live baby. At 24 weeks, they could survive. But not at the Women's Medical Society. If he delivered a baby, alive, during his "abortion", he would kill them, or "ensure fetal demise". And the way he did it? Sticking scissors into the back of the baby's neck and cutting the spinal cord, a procedure he called "snipping". Sometimes he did them, sometimes an unlicensed "doctor" did them, sometimes administrative staff did them. But everyone knew. Files were destroyed. But some weren't. (2)
Baby Boy A was born at 30 weeks. He was 6 pounds. He was born alive to a 17-year-old mother who did not want him. Gosnell severed his spine and but the baby in a plastic shoe box. Baby Boy B was found frozen in a spring water bottle. He was 28 weeks and was moving and breathing for 20 minutes before an assistant came in to cut his spinal cord. (2)
If you can get past the murder of living, breathing children, there was also abuse and horrific conditions for the patients beyond the unsanitary cat-infested clinic. Gosnell tore one woman's cervix and colon while trying to extract the fetus and was left lying for hours. Another woman, aged 19, had to undergo a hysterectomy after Gosnell punctured her uterus and went into shock from blood loss. Another woman went into convulsions during her procedure, fell off the table and hit her head. Gosnell wouldn't allow her companion to leave and call an ambulance. (2)
Women were sometimes given drugs to induce labor before the doctor even arrived. An employee said, "if a baby was about to come out, I would take the woman to the bathroom, they would sit on the toilet and basically the baby would fall out and it would be in the toilet and I would be rubbing hr back and trying to calm her down for two, three, four hours until Dr. Gosnell comes." (2)
Karnamaya Mongar, a refugee from Nepal who recently came to the U.S. arrived at the clinic with no doctor present. She signed forms she couldn't read and was doped up. She was given un-monitored injections of a drug that had stopped being used because of its dangers, but Gosnell got it for cheap. After a few hours, Karnamaya stopped breathing. He tried to give CPR, but couldn't use the defibrillator because it was broken, and he didn't give any emergency medications. She was probably brain dead before paramedics arrived, but while they were on their way, the staff hooked up machinery and rearranged her body so it would look like they were in the midst of a routine abortion procedure when paramedics came. (2)
She still may have lived, but the paramedics couldn't get out of the building because of cluttered hallways and a padlocked emergency door. They didn't even know what to treat her for, because they all lied about what she had been given. (2)
Gosnell, a black man, gave better treatment to his white patients. An employee claimed that black, Indian and Asian women would be medicated and left in the grimy waiting room, but a white patient from the suburbs wouldn't be medicated immediately and would get to speak to the doctor before being drugged. (2)
Anyone at the office was allowed to dispense anesthesia to the patients, including a 15-year-old high school student who worked at the clinic. One employee, Marcella Choung, said her 15-minute description of anesthesia was all she got, and she couldn't sleep because she was so terrified she may kill someone. She refused to and left, never returning. She filed a complaint, but it was never acted on. (2)
THE TRIAL OF KERMIT GOSNELL
In 2011, Gosnell and 8 other clinic employees, and his wife, Pearl, where charged in the case. 8 of the 9, most offering to testify against Gosnell. 3 plead guilty to third degree murder. (1)
In December of 2011, Pearl Gosnell plead guilty to performing illegal abortions, among other things, but did not have to testify against her husband due to spousal privilege. (1)
The only employee on trial with Gosnell, as a result of all of the guilty pleas, was Eileen O'Neill, who acted as a doctor though she was not licensed. Gosnell was ultimately charged with 7 counts of first degree murder (which was eventually reduced to 4), one count of 3rd degree murder, infanticide (dismissed at trial), 5 counts of abusing a corpse (dismissed at trial), multiple counts of conspiracy, criminal solicitation, and violation of state law. (1)
The sentences for all accused are as follows (1):
- Pearl Gosnell (Kermit's wife) // charged with abortion at 24_ weeks, conspiracy and participating in a corrupt organization. Plead guilty. Sentenced to 7-23 months.
- Eileen O'Neill // convicted of conspiracy charges and theft by deception. Sentenced to 6-23 months of house arrest, 2 years of probation and 100 hours of community service.
- Steven Massof (med student, no license) // charged with 2 counts of third-degree murder for the deaths of babies who had been born alive. He plead guilty.
- Kareema Cross // testified that she had seen 10 babies born breathing and killed. Plead guilty to federal drug charges for improper distribution of pain medication
- Adrienne Moton // charged with third degree murder, plead guilty. Admitted to cutting the neck of 10 babies. Sentenced to 11-23 months
Lynda Williams // convicted of 2 counts of third-degree murder. Sentenced to 5-10 years.
Sherry West // convicted of third-degree murder after admitting to administering the fatal dose to Mongar. Sentenced to 5-10 years.
Madeline Joe // office manager, plead guilty to conspiracy
Elizabeth Hampton // Gosnell's sister-in-law, sentenced to 1-year of probation for perjury
Tina Baldwin // plead guilty to racketeering, conspiracy and corruption of a minor, sentenced to 30 months probation
And, our guest of honor, Kermit Gosnell was found guilty of 3 counts of murder of 3 babies, 1 count of involuntary manslaughter of Mongar, and countless lesser counts. He was sentenced to life in prison. (1)
MEDIA ATTENTION, OR LACK THEREOF
The case garnered some media attention, but it certainly wasn't front page news. The Department of Health was criticized for not believing their authority to protect the public "extended to clinics offering abortion services". The National Abortion Federation noted that Gosnell had been rejected from membership, despite the fact that he had cleaned up the place when they came and visited. Planned Parenthood also spoke out against Gosnell, saying "we would condemn any physician who does not follow the law or endangers anyone's health. All women should have access to high-quality care when they are vulnerable and facing difficult decisions." (1)
But despite relevant organizations getting in on the conversation, the story was not widely shared, which drew a lot of criticism. Some believe it was because it would hurt the pro-choice agenda, writing about and demonstrating the atrocities that were committed in the name of being pro-choice. But this should not have been a partisan issue. Murdering living babies should be considered an atrocity on all sides of the political spectrum. It wasn't an abortion issue, it was a murder issue. Liberals shouldn't have kept quiet about it in fear of looking pro-life, while conservatives shouldn't have used it to fight against abortion. (2)
"For abortion opponents, what more powerful demonstration of its brutality [do you need] than an abortioinst who severs the spins of already delivered babies? And for progressive feminists who worry that restricting abortion causes women to seek out horrific back-market procedures at great risk to their lives, what better confirmation than hundreds of women paying to receive treatment from a man whose office was filled with severed baby feet, blood spattered blankets, and cat feces?" Quotes Conor Friedersdorf from The Atlantic. The story couldn't go mainstream because there was no middle ground. (5)
Other theories about why this case didn't garner significant media attention exist, including that most of the victims were poor, black mothers, and that we don't treat the death of newborns the same as other children. (5)
Additionally, writing about this would have been really miserable. Again, it is hard to find a middle ground. I'm trying to as a pro-choice liberal who is appalled by this case, but you know every single comment is going to be so aggressive and terrible. There are also a lot of extremely graphic descriptions that won't live well in media. (5)
Because abortion is such a tensely split issue, it would be extremely hard to cover the trial in an unbiased manner. And thus, it appears most media outlets just didn't cover it at all.
I will leave you with this: I am pro-choice. I believe that comprehensive sex education and access to birth control will limit the amount of abortions needed, but when an abortion is needed or desired, I believe women should have access to it. But I don't believe this story is a testament to what happens when a woman is denied abortion. Many women struggle to access abortion or afford abortion who don't end up in blood soaked chairs, drugged out of their minds being taken care of by high school freshmen. I believe that abortions being affordable and accessible can save women's lives, I just don't think this is an appropriate example of it to support that claim.
This is an outlier, a horrific, terrible outlier. It doesn't speak to the universal dangers of denying abortion, and it doesn't speak to the universal dangers of providing abortions: It only speaks to the singular danger of being treated at this specific clinic by this specific monster of a "physician" and his team.
I will admit, I understand the reservations of journalists to write about this, especially pro-choice journalists, because, yes, it does seem to give ammunition to the "other side". But then I kicked myself for feeling that way. This isn't a case of sides. This isn't a pro or anti abortion argument. This is human beings being against the murder of living, delivered babies, against the dangerous and unsanitary conditions for patients, against having children administering anesthetics. It is the same as, perhaps, conservative outlets not writing about the horrors of kids being in cages at the border. But it isn't a pro or anti immigration argument. It is an argument against children being separated from their parents and kept in cages.
I'll put it this way: If you're not willing to admit that the murder of a newborn baby is murder because you're afraid that will make people think that you also think that a safely conducted abortion is murder, then you might be holding your opinions for the wrong reasons.
We live in a very polarizing time where things seem to be very black and white. But if we are so unwilling to bend our pro-choice opinions just enough to speak out against the murder of living babies, or so unwilling to bend our anti-immigration opinions to be against the caging of terrified children, then what are we even doing? We believe the things we believe and support the issues we support because we believe that it makes the world a better place. But if we can't move out of our left or right wings enough to meet in the middle and agree that genuinely, unquestionably terrible things are terrible, then what is the point?