Editor’s note. Today is the second anniversary of the murder convictions of abortionist Kermit Gosnell. We will post at least four stories. This first one is the opening devastating summary from the 261 page Grand Jury report–“Section I: Overview.” The Grand Jury paints a picture of ethical and professional debauchery, a man whose Women’s Medical Society was a “baby charnel house.”
Section I: Overview
This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women. What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy – and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels – and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it.
Let us say right up front that we realize this case will be used by those on both sides of the abortion debate. We ourselves cover a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion. For us as a criminal grand jury, however, the case is not about that controversy; it is about disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants. We find common ground in exposing what happened here, and in recommending measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.
The “Women’s Medical Society”
That was the impressive-sounding name of the clinic operated in West Philadelphia, at 38th and Lancaster, by Kermit B. Gosnell, M.D. Gosnell seemed impressive as well. A child of the neighborhood, Gosnell spent almost four decades running this clinic, giving back – so it appeared – to the community in which he continued to live and work.
But the truth was something very different, and evident to anyone who stepped inside. The clinic reeked of animal urine, courtesy of the cats that were allowed to roam (and defecate) freely. Furniture and blankets were stained with blood. Instruments were not properly sterilized. Disposable medical supplies were not disposed of; they were reused, over and over again. Medical equipment – such as the defibrillator, the EKG, the pulse oximeter, the blood pressure cuff – was generally broken; even when it worked, it wasn’t used. The emergency exit was padlocked shut. And scattered throughout, in cabinets, in the basement, in a freezer, in jars and bags and plastic jugs, were fetal remains. It was a baby charnel house.
The people who ran this sham medical practice included no doctors other than Gosnell himself, and not even a single nurse. Two of his employees had been to medical school, but neither of them were licensed physicians. They just pretended to be.
Everyone called them “Doctor,” even though they, and Gosnell, knew they weren’t. Among the rest of the staff, there was no one with any medical licensing or relevant certification at all. But that didn’t stop them from making diagnoses, performing procedures, administering drugs.
Because the real business of the “Women’s Medical Society” was not health; it was profit. There were two primary parts to the operation. By day it was a prescription mill; by night an abortion mill. A constant stream of “patients” came through during business hours and, for the proper payment, left with scripts for OxyContin and other controlled substances, for themselves and their friends. Gosnell didn’t see these “patients”; he didn’t even show up at the office during the day. He just left behind blank, pre-signed prescription pads, and had his unskilled, unauthorized workers take care of the rest. The fake prescriptions brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. But this drug-selling operation is the subject of separate investigation by federal authorities.
Our focus was on the other side of the business.
Murder in plain sight
With abortion, as with prescriptions, Gosnell’s approach was simple: keep volume high, expenses low – and break the law. That was his competitive edge. Pennsylvania, like other states, permits legal abortion within a regulatory framework. Physicians must, for example, provide counseling about the nature of the procedure. Minors must have parental or judicial consent. All women must wait 24 hours after first visiting the facility, in order to fully consider their decision. But Gosnell’s compliance with such requirements was casual at best. At the Women’s Medical Society, the only question that really mattered was whether you had the cash.
Too young? No problem. Didn’t want to wait? Gosnell provided same-day service. The real key to the business model, though, was this: Gosnell catered to the women who couldn’t get abortions elsewhere – because they were too pregnant. Most doctors won’t perform late second-trimester abortions, from approximately the 20th week of pregnancy, because of the risks involved. And late-term abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy are flatly illegal. But for Dr. Gosnell, they were an opportunity. The bigger the baby, the more he charged.
There was one small problem. The law requires a measurement of gestational age, usually done by an ultrasound. The ultrasound film would leave documentary proof that the abortion was illegal. Gosnell’s solution was simply to fudge the measurement process. Instead of hiring proper ultrasound technicians, he “trained” the staff himself, showing them how to aim the ultrasound probe at an angle to make the fetus looks smaller. If one of his workers nonetheless recorded an ultrasound measurement that was too big, it would just be redone.
Invariably these second ultrasounds would come in lower. In fact, almost every time a second ultrasound was taken, the gestational age would be recorded as precisely 24.5 weeks – slightly past the statutory cutoff. Apparently Gosnell thought he would get away with abortions that were just a little illegal. In reality, of course, most of these pregnancies were considerably more advanced.
But the illegal abortion business also posed an additional dilemma. Babies that big are hard to get out. Gosnell’s approach, whenever possible, was to force full labor and delivery of premature infants on ill-informed women. The women would check in during the day, make payment, and take labor-inducing drugs. The doctor wouldn’t appear until evening, often 8:00, 9:00, or 10:00 p.m., and only then deal with any of the women who were ready to deliver. Many of them gave birth before he even got there.
By maximizing the pain and danger for his patients, he minimized the work, and cost, for himself and his staff. The policy, in effect, was labor without labor.
There remained, however, a final difficulty. When you perform late-term “abortions” by inducing labor, you get babies. Live, breathing, squirming babies. By 24 weeks, most babies born prematurely will survive if they receive appropriate medical care. But that was not what the Women’s Medical Society was about. Gosnell had a simple solution for the unwanted babies he delivered: he killed them. He didn’t call it that. He called it “ensuring fetal demise.” The way he ensured fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called that “snipping.”
Over the years, there were hundreds of “snippings.” Sometimes, if Gosnell was unavailable, the “snipping” was done by one of his fake doctors, or even by one of the administrative staff. But all the employees of the Women’s Medical Society knew. Everyone there acted as if it wasn’t murder at all.
Most of these acts cannot be prosecuted, because Gosnell destroyed the files. Among the relatively few cases that could be specifically documented, one was Baby Boy A. His 17-year-old mother was almost 30 weeks pregnant – seven and a half months – when labor was induced. An employee estimated his birth weight as approaching six pounds. He was breathing and moving when Dr. Gosnell severed his spine and put the body in a plastic shoebox for disposal. The doctor joked that this baby was so big he could “walk me to the bus stop.”
Another, Baby Boy B, whose body was found at the clinic frozen in a one-gallon spring-water bottle, was at least 28 weeks of gestational age when he was killed. Baby C was moving and breathing for 20 minutes before an assistant came in and cut the spinal cord, just the way she had seen Gosnell do it so many times.
And these were not even the worst cases. Gosnell made little effort to hide his illegal abortion practice. But there were some, “the really big ones,” that even he was afraid to perform in front of others. These abortions were scheduled for Sundays, a day when the clinic was closed and none of the regular employees were present. Only one person was allowed to assist with these special cases – Gosnell’s wife. The files for these patients were not kept at the office; Gosnell took them home with him and disposed of them.
We may never know the details of these cases. We do know, however, that, during the rest of the week, Gosnell routinely aborted and killed babies in the sixth and seventh month of pregnancy. The Sunday babies must have been bigger still.