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Philadelphia trial agitates abortion debate

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 10:09 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — There was no shortage of red flags about what was allegedly going on in the three-story brick building on a bustling stretch of Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia.

A routine inspection of Kermit Gosnell's abortion clinic had turned up problems as early as 1989, according to official reports. More recently, hospital workers and attorneys had repeatedly contacted state health officials with disturbing reports about women who had contracted the same venereal disease after visiting the clinic; a 14-year-old girl who had had an illegal abortion at 30 weeks of pregnancy; and a 41-year-old Virginia woman who had died after an abortion.

But it wasn't until 2010, when authorities raided the clinic over its distribution of painkillers, that authorities uncovered evidence that led to Gosnell's capital murder trial, which started in March. Gosnell faces seven first-degree murder charges resulting from the deaths of babies whose spinal cords he allegedly severed after they were born alive. He is charged with third-degree murder in the death of the Virginia woman, Karnamaya Mongar.

The prosecution rested Thursday after weeks of testimony from former employees who reported seeing babies moving and breathing after they were delivered. Gosnell or other workers would then cut their necks, the witnesses said. Jurors also heard about the allegedly unsanitary conditions from Mongar's relatives.

A former clinic worker who grew up in Mt. Lebanon testified on Thursday that he routinely saw babies born and then killed with scissors in an inner-city Philadelphia clinic that catered to minorities, the poor and women with late-term pregnancies.

Unlicensed doctor Stephen Massof thought clinic owner Dr. Kermit Gosnell was trying to help vulnerable women seeking abortions.

Massof awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to third-degree murder for two infant deaths.

Gosnell's attorney has said that no live births took place and that Mongar suffered from respiratory problems. Gosnell could face the death penalty if convicted.

The case has captivated and repulsed a nation where back-alley abortion clinics have become a rarity since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion. The catalogue of horrors delineated by prosecutors has raised questions about whether there is adequate inspection and regulation of the 1,800 facilities nationwide that provide abortions.

The rules governing abortion clinics vary widely by state and invariably become tangled in the issue's incendiary politics, with supporters of abortion rights often complaining they are too onerous and abortion foes calling for ever-stricter guidelines.

Abortion rights advocates note that Pennsylvania has strict laws governing abortion clinics but that they were not enforced. They say Gosnell's case is rare and that abortions are among the safest of medical procedures.

But abortion foes say the case has been a wake-up call about the lack of oversight and the potential for abuse in abortion facilities.

“This is our Sandy Hook,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, an antiabortion activist group, referring to the mass shooting in Connecticut that led to unprecedented calls for gun regulations. “Because of Gosnell, I am hoping and praying and working toward raising the public awareness that abortion mills need to be regulated, inspected, licensed, at the very least like your local breakfast place.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has called the lack of oversight by state officials “despicable.” He fired or suspended some workers for negligence after the grand jury investigation, and others have resigned. Corbett announced that abortion clinics throughout the state would be subject to annual inspections, as well as periodic unannounced visits.

Activists on both sides of the issue say the conditions inside Gosnell's clinic were the worst they've seen. He is accused of a litany of atrocities at the West Philadelphia Women's Medical Society, including his “snipping” technique, in which he allegedly severed the spines of babies who had been born during abortion procedures. Fetal remains apparently were stored in jugs and bags, and authorities described the clinic as filthy. Cats were permitted to roam freely inside.

About half of states — most Republican — have specific rules that apply to abortion clinics, while the rest hold abortion providers to the same standards as other medical professionals, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights think tank. Some states require providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Others have strict staffing and construction rules.

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