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Abortion doctor’s murder case goes to jury in Philadelphia

After six weeks of testimony, a Philadelphia jury began deliberating the fate of a veteran doctor accused of four counts of murder while performing late-term abortions in his clinic that served poor women.

The case, which has reignited passions over the thorny issues surrounding abortion rights, went to the jury of seven women and five men on Tuesday. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of four babies that the prosecution contends were delivered alive during late-term abortions, then killed when their spines were cut with surgical scissors. The defense argues that Gosnell was aborting fetuses.

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Gosnell did not testify during the trial, which began with opening statements on March 18. But he could take the stand if convicted because the jury will then hear evidence to determine the sentence, which could be death or life in prison without parole.

In addition to the first-degree murder charges, Gosnell faces one count of third-degree murder, 24 counts of carrying out abortions past Pennsylvania’s law that sets the age of viability at 24 weeks, 227 counts of performing abortions without giving the state mandated 24-hour waiting period and other counts involving racketeering and operating a corrupt organization.

The case goes to the jury as abortion rights are again on some states’ legislative agendas. While polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose an abortion, many also want some limits, especially banning abortions beyond the point at which a fetus is viable outside the womb. In recent weeks Arkansas has banned abortions after 12 weeks and North Dakota has prohibited abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat at about six weeks. Other states, like Pennsylvania, also have some restrictions such as the waiting period.

Born in Philadelphia, Gosnell has practiced medicine in his Mantua neighborhood for more than 40 years. He received his medical degree in 1966 from Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia. He also trained in New York City before returning to Philadelphia, where he started a drug rehabilitation clinic in the neighborhood and opened his own abortion clinic in 1972, according to newspaper profiles.

Gosnell performed thousands of abortions in his Women’s Medical Society Clinic, in a career that spanned three decades. State officials didn’t inspected the west Philadelphia facilities until it was raided in 2010 after a female patient, on anesthesia, died a year earlier while being monitored by what prosecutors said were unqualified staff. The raid led to a 2011 grand jury investigation that condemned the operation as “a house of horrors.”

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“When people [who are] supposed to regulate these folks don’t do it right, that’s what happens,” Assistant Dist. Atty. Ed Cameron told jurors in closing arguments on Monday, according to media reports from the courtroom. “Back-alley abortions. Coat-hanger abortions. That’s what happens.”

The clinic has been closed down and two state Health Department officials fired since the raid. Eight former employees have pleaded guilty to murder or other charges and have testified that they saw babies move or breathe or cry during what should have been abortion procedures. When the fetuses seemed to be alive, Gosnell moved in with scissors to kill them, the witnesses said.

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In his summation, defense lawyer Jack McMahon argued that prosecutors sensationalized the grand jury findings. “This isn’t a perfect place by any stretch of the imagination — but it isn’t what they say it is,” McMahon said. “You have a choice, a real choice,” he told the jurors “to roll with the tsunami of simplistic press and rhetoric, or the choice to stand against the power of that tsunami.”

The defense maintains that the fetuses were not alive and that the prosecution had targeted Gosnell, who is African American. The prosecution had brought an “elitist” and “racist” charge against a black doctor serving a poor community of women who could go nowhere else. Gosnell “provided those desperate young girls with relief. He gave them a solution to their problems,” McMahon said, according to reports from the courtroom.

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“We know why he was targeted,” McMahon told the jury. “If you don’t see it, you are living in some sort of la-la land.”

But the prosecution was just as blunt. Gosnell “created an assembly line with no regard for these women whatsoever. And he made money doing that,” prosecutor Cameron said.

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“Are you human?” Cameron asked Gosnell during the closing phase, “to med these women up and stick knives in the backs of babies?”

According to the defense, Gosnell injected every patient with Digoxin, which is used to abort the fetus. The paperwork and testimony shows that Gosnell used the drug on each patient so that the fetuses must have been dead when removed from the womb. The testimony from the former employees, who said the fetuses were alive, was wrong and came from fears of further prosecution, the defense said.

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Cameron countered that not all the patients got the drug and pointed to records of an aborted fetus that had a gash in the back of its neck but no traces of Digoxin. If the fetus had just one breath, or motion of a limb or even one heart beat, the baby was born alive and could not be killed outside the womb, the prosecution maintained.

Gosnell allegedly recycled plastic parts -- which were supposed to be discarded after one use -- and administered out-of-date drugs, Cameron said. The doctor ignored sanitary practices and also allowed untrained personnel to administer drugs, resulting in premature deliveries in chairs and on the floor, Cameron alleged.

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“My dog was treated better than those babies and women,” Cameron said, looking directly at Gosnell during Monday’s closing argument. “Are you human?”

Unlicensed doctor Eileen O’Neill, 56, of Phoenixville, Pa., is also on trial with Gosnell. She is charged with participating in a corrupt organization and several counts of theft for illegally practicing medicine in Pennsylvania. Her lawyer argued that she worked under Gosnell’s direct supervision.

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