Reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News had settled in alongside a handful of local and wire service reporters to hear the latest testimony regarding the case of Kermit Gosnell, a 72-year-old abortion provider who faces charges of murdering seven infants whose spines he allegedly snipped with scissors when they were born after induced labor at his West Philadelphia clinic.
Gosnell also faces a third-degree murder charge in the death of a Virginia woman who died after allegedly receiving too much anesthesia under his care during a 2009 abortion. He could receive the death penalty if convicted.
Nearly a month after it began, Gosnell’s trial last week finally was at the center of a national spotlight. Once treated largely as an eccentric, if gruesome, local story about a man accused of unthinkable crimes against babies and recklessness toward the women he treated, the case has taken on new significance in recent days, connecting the hot-button issues of abortion, race, media and even guns in a horror-movie narrative.
Other than a smattering of coverage after Gosnell was indicted in 2011, the trial has garnered little attention until an outcry in recent days, largely from conservative pundits and lawmakers, but also from media watchdogs.
“If Dr. Gosnell had walked into a nursery and shot seven infants with an AR-15, it would be national news and the subject of presidential hand-wringing,” Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), an abortion opponent, said in a floor speech, reading from an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily.
“This should be front page news,” Fox News analyst and USA Today contributor Kirsten Powers proclaimed last week.
“This ought to be a big story on the merits,” wrote the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf.
“By any standard, this is a newsworthy trial,” wrote Bloomberg columnist and Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg.
Washington Post editor Martin Baron agreed that the story deserved more coverage and said the paper should have reported on it sooner. The public editor of the New York Times said the case “deserves more coverage than it’s had, in The Times and elsewhere.”
The political fallout has yet to sort out. Abortion rights groups have pushed back against allegations that they sat by or even endorsed the actions of Gosnell, as opponents have suggested. They argue that Gosnell’s alleged crimes are an anomaly and that the clinic was able to operate under the radar of regulators — who a grand jury said had woefully failed to oversee the facility — because abortion has been marginalized as an aspect of women’s health.
“He’s a bad dude,” said Judy Waxman, vice president of Health and Reproductive Rights at the National Women’s Law Center. “He is not representative of compliant doctors. We reiterate our position that women need safe, legal access to abortion to get good care.”
But abortion foes say the case is bringing new energy to their cause. They say the case, though extreme, has pulled back the curtain on what happens in abortion clinics, particularly those that do “late-term” abortions.
“The significance of the trial is that it shows just how reluctant people are to look at what goes on in abortion facilities,” said Mary Spaulding Balch, director for state legislation for National Right to Life, a group that opposes abortion. “This is something they don’t know about, and they would be shocked to hear about it.”
Whatever Gosnell has come to stand for outside Courtoom 304, the case unfolding inside offers a catalogue of atrocities that took place at the West Philadelphia Women’s Medical Society clinic where Gosnell worked. Worst are the sickening descriptions of Gosnell’s “snipping” technique, in which he allegedly severed the spines of babies that had been born during abortion procedures. Fetal remains apparently were stored in jugs and bags inside cabinets, the basement, even a freezer.
The alleged abuses also include untrained workers administering drugs to patients, furniture and blankets stained with blood and unsterilized instruments.
The evidence Monday included testimony from Sam P. Gulino, Philadelphia’s chief medical examiner, who described receiving scores of fetuses and baby parts to examine in 2010 after authorities raided Gosnell’s clinic.
Gulino described two jars filled with formaldehyde, one holding a left foot and the other a right foot, from the same 22-week fetus.
“It was really an unprecedented situation,” Gulino said. “It was the first time I had to deal with fetal remains that had been frozen. . . . All I could do was allow the remains to thaw so that I could examine them.”
“Jesus,” whispered a woman in the audience.
Altogether, Gulino said, he had received all or part of 47 fetuses, most of them aborted well into the second trimester. At least a couple, he determined, likely would have been viable outside the mother’s womb, though Gosnell’s attorney forced the doctor to acknowledge that there was no way to know for certain.
In the middle of the courtroom sat some of the aging, decrepit equipment from Gosnell’s clinic, including a broken defibrillator.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.