Philadelphia abortion doctor is convicted of murder

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 15 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3170
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne
  1. 1New York

Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor who ran an abortion clinic serving women in mostly poor and minority groups, was convicted yesterday of three counts of first degree murder after a long trial and lengthy jury deliberations.

He was found guilty of killing three babies who were born alive by snipping their spinal cords with scissors. He agreed on 14 May to give up his right to an appeal and faces life in prison, but will be spared a death sentence.

Gosnell was found not guilty of murdering a woman who died from an overdose of sedatives, but he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in her case. He was also found guilty in relation to more than 200 charges of violating Pennsylvania’s 24 h waiting period between consulting with a patient and performing an abortion, and 24 charges of performing abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, Pennsylvania’s limit.

Several of the clinic’s untrained staff members, including Gosnell’s wife Pearl, pleaded guilty to various charges and testified against him. They testified that the babies moved and one made sounds. Gosnell’s lawyer said that the fetuses had been injected with a drug to stop the heart before labor was induced, and that the movements were posthumous spasms.

Gosnell did not testify at the trial, and no witnesses were called in his defense.

The case began in 2010 when federal agents searched Gosnell’s clinic because it was said to have freely dispensed prescriptions for painkillers that could be resold on the street.1

In the clinic, the agents found dirty and unsanitary conditions. A grand jury investigation called the clinic a “baby charnel house.” Investigators found furniture and blankets stained with blood, instruments that had not been properly sterilized, and disposable medical supplies that had been reused.

Containers in the clinic held aborted fetuses, and the building was smelly because Gosnell’s cats were allowed to roam freely. The grand jury report castigated the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health for failure to inspect and supervise the clinic.2

State authorities closed the clinic and suspended Gosnell’s license. Pennsylvania later tightened regulations on abortion.

The case focused attention on the contentious issue of abortion, particularly late term abortions. Both sides of the abortion debate drew lessons from the case. Anti-abortion (pro-life) advocates said it showed that more of these late term abortions were probably occurring and demonstrated the need for further restrictions on abortion.

Pro-choice advocates deplored Gosnell’s clinic, and said it showed that women needed access to safe abortions. They said that more restrictions would delay women’s access to abortion and increase the number of backstreet clinics.

The Gosnell trial drew little media attention until a columnist in USA Today lambasted the press for not covering the case, calling it a major human rights issue.3

Gosnell’s lawyer called the prosecutors racist for targeting Gosnell, who is black. Gosnell initially contended that he had provided general medical care in an impoverished area for many years. Most of the clinic’s patients were poor and minority women who often paid in cash. The grand jury report estimated that Gosnell may have received as much as $1.8m (£1.2m; €1.4m) a year.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3170