Karen Heller: From silent Gosnell, a gathering storm

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Abortiondoctor Kermit Gosnell faces murder charges in an emotionally charged case.

For six weeks, Dr. Kermit Gosnell sat largely impassive, like an invited guest at his murder trial, offering an occasional smile while taking prodigious notes with a spring-green pen.

And yet Gosnell is the center of the "firestorm," as his defense attorney, Jack McMahon, put it in closing arguments Monday, the vortex of the reignited abortion debate four decades after Roe v. Wade.

No matter what the verdict, Gosnell has become the opportunity and the example, the name synonymous in women's reproductive health with everything that can go wrong.

For nearly three hours, Assistant District Attorney Edward Cameron reviewed testimony of all 54 witnesses, their names posted on monitors in red blocks like some woeful Jeopardy! board. "I felt like a fireman in hell," he told the jury in recalling the testimony of one of the doctor's workers.

"That hell was 3801 Lancaster Ave.," Cameron said, referring to the West Philadelphia clinic Gosnell operated, "and he was the captain of that hell."

In his often explosive closing, Gosnell's lawyer cited a "racist prosecution" and "a tsunami of simplistic press and rhetoric," and warned that the prosecution had engaged in "the most extraordinary hype and exaggeration in the history of the justice system."

What is not in debate is that Gosnell routinely ignored state regulations. For years, he operated, without any proper inspections, a back-alley abortion mill at a time of legal abortion. That back alley just happened to be Lancaster Avenue.

The woefully misnamed Women's Medical Society served poor, desperate clients, many of them girls, and was staffed by uneducated and unskilled workers - all but one have pleaded guilty - operating faulty equipment.

The trial has been exhausting and punishing, a ghastly forum for graphic photographs and testimony. There were references to "the cellphone baby," "the toilet baby," "the whining baby," and one witness testified that the doctor joked, "That baby is big enough to walk me to the bus stop." The antiquated, battered machinery has been in the courtroom for the duration. At one point Monday, Cameron brandished a stained, torn transvaginal ultrasound wand.

Gosnell declined to take the stand, yet he has provided fresh ammunition for both sides in the abortion battle. Opponents referred to the case while drafting a barrage of restrictive legislation to reproductive health in Harrisburg and other state capitals. There have been almost 700 provisions alone in the first three months of this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the policy center that advocates for sexual and reproductive health. Arkansas banned abortions after 12 weeks, and North Dakota banned them once a fetal heartbeat is "detectable," as early as six weeks.

Abortion-rights advocates argue that stricter laws will create more Gosnells, inferior clinics for poor, frightened women with limited access to quality services. On Friday, President Obama became the first sitting president to address Planned Parenthood. He criticized the new laws as "absurd" and "an assault on women's rights."

The national press and abortion opponents returned to the courtroom this week. Fox News has scheduled an hour-long special Sunday on the case, See No Evil. Gosnell and abortion rights will surely be debated in Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race between abortion-opponent Gov. Corbett and the Democratic front-runner, Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, who once ran a women's health center that offered abortion services.

On Tuesday, the jury began deliberations. After this verdict, Gosnell faces federal charges of operating an illegal pill mill. His clinic is closed, but his tattered name and brutal legacy are seemingly everywhere.

 


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists blog, Blinq, at www.inquirer.com/blinq.