Image: Building where abortions were done
Matt Rourke  /  AP
Dr. Kermit Gosnell had his practice, called the Women's Medical Society, in this building in Philadelphia.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/19/2011 6:24:21 PM ET 2011-01-19T23:24:21

A doctor whose abortion clinic was a filthy, foul-smelling "house of horrors" that was overlooked by regulators for years was charged Wednesday with murder, accused of delivering seven babies alive and then using scissors to kill them.

Hundreds of other babies likely died in the squalid clinic that Dr. Kermit Gosnell ran from 1979 to 2010, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said at a news conference.

"My comprehension of the English language can't adequately describe the barbaric nature of Dr. Gosnell," he added.

Williams said he might seek the death penalty for Gosnell, who with nine of his associates, including his wife, was arrested on Wednesday.

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Gosnell was charged with murder, infanticide, conspiracy, abortion at 24 or more weeks and other charges.

Pennsylvania law prohibits abortion after 24 weeks except to save the life of the mother or avoid serious health risk to her.

In a nearly 300-page grand jury report filled with ghastly, stomach-turning detail, prosecutors said Pennsylvania regulators ignored complaints of barbaric conditions at Gosnell's clinic, which catered to poor, immigrant and minority women in the city's impoverished West Philadelphia section.

Prosecutors called the gruesome case a "complete regulatory collapse."

"Pennsylvania is not a third-world country," the district attorney's office declared in the report. "There were several oversight agencies that stumbled upon and should have shut down Kermit Gosnell long ago."

Image: Procedure room
Philadelphia District Attorney's Office via AP
Patients at the Women's Medical Society in Philadelphia were taken to procedure rooms like this one.

Gosnell, 69, was arrested and charged with eight counts of murder altogether in the alleged killings of seven babies and the death of a woman from an overdose of painkillers. Nine of Gosnell's employees — including his wife, a cosmetologist — also were charged.

Prosecutors said Gosnell made millions of dollars over three decades performing thousands of dangerous abortions, many of them illegal late-term procedures. His clinic had no trained nurses or medical staff other than Gosnell, a family physician not certified in obstetrics or gynecology, prosecutors said.

At least two women died from the procedures, while scores more were injured from perforated bowels, cervixes and uteruses, authorities said.

In a typical late-term abortion, the fetus is dismembered in the uterus and then removed in pieces. That is more common than the procedure opponents call "partial-birth abortion," in which the fetus is only partially extracted before being destroyed. Prosecutors said Gosnell instead delivered many of the babies alive.

He "induced labor, forced the live birth of viable babies in the sixth, seventh, eighth month of pregnancy and then killed those babies by cutting into the back of the neck with scissors and severing their spinal cord," District Attorney Seth Williams said.

Gosnell referred to the practice as "snipping," prosecutors said.

Prosecutors estimated Gosnell ended hundreds of pregnancies by cutting the spinal cords, but they said couldn't prosecute more cases because he destroyed files.

"These killings became so routine that no one could put an exact number on them," the grand jury report said. "They were considered 'standard procedure.'"

Defense attorney William J. Brennan, who represented Gosnell during the investigation, said: "Obviously, these allegations are very, very serious."

Authorities raided Gosnell's clinic early last year in search of controlled drug violations and stumbled upon "a house of horrors," Williams said. Bags and bottles holding aborted fetuses "were scattered throughout the building," the district attorney said. "There were jars, lining shelves, with severed feet that he kept for no medical purpose."

Prosecutors said the place reeked of cat urine because of the animals that were allowed to roam freely, instruments were not properly sterilized, and disposable medical supplied were used over and over.

Gosnell didn't advertise, but word got around. Women came from across the city, state and region for illegal late-term abortions, authorities said. They paid $325 for first-trimester abortions and $1,600 to $3,000 for abortions up to 30 weeks. The clinic took in $10,000 to $15,000 a day, authorities said.

"People knew near and far that if you needed a late-term abortion you could go see Dr. Gosnell," Williams said.

White women from the suburbs were ushered into a separate, slightly cleaner area because Gosnell believed they were more likely to file complaints, Williams said.

Few if any of the unconscious patients knew their babies had been born alive and then killed, prosecutors said. Many were first-time mothers who were told they were 24 weeks pregnant, even if they were much further along, authorities said.

Prosecutors said Gosnell falsified the ultrasound examinations that determine how far along a pregnancy is, teaching his staff to hold the probe in such a way that the fetus would look smaller.

Gosnell sometimes joked about the babies, saying one was so large he could "walk me to the bus stop," according to the report.

State regulators ignored complaints about Gosnell and the 46 lawsuits filed against him, and made just five annual inspections, most satisfactory, since the clinic opened in 1979. The inspections stopped completely in 1993 because of what prosecutors said was the pro-abortion rights attitude that set in after Democratic Gov. Robert Casey, an abortion foe, left office.

Williams accused the state Health Department officials of "utter disregard" for the safety of women undergoing abortion, and said the testimony of agency officials "enraged" the grand jury. But he said he could find no criminal offenses with which they could be charged, in part because too much time has elapsed.

"These officials were far more protective of themselves when they testified before the grand jury. Even (Health Department) lawyers, including the chief counsel, brought private attorneys with them — presumably at government expense," the report said.

The state's reluctance to investigate, under several administrations, may stem partly from the sensitivity of the abortion debate, Williams said. Nonetheless, he called Gosnell's case a clear case of murder.

"A doctor who with scissors cuts into the necks, severing the spinal cords of living, breathing babies who would survive with proper medical attention commits murder under the law," he said. "Regardless of one's feelings about abortion, whatever one's beliefs, that is the law."

Four clinic employees were also charged with murder, and five more, including Gosnell's wife, Pearl, with conspiracy, drug and other crimes. All were in custody. Gosnell's wife performed extremely late-term abortions on Sundays, the report said.

One of the murder charges against Gosnell involves a woman seeking an abortion, Karnamaya Mongar, who authorities said died in 2009 because she was given too much of the painkiller Demerol and other drugs.

Gosnell wasn't at the clinic at the time. His staff administered the drugs repeatedly as they waited for him to arrive at night, as was his custom, the grand jury found.

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Mongar and her husband, Ash, had fled their native Bhutan and spent nearly 20 years in camps in Nepal. They had three children. A man who answered the phone Wednesday at a listing for Ash Mongar in Virginia did not speak English, while their daughter did not immediately return a message.

The malpractice suits filed against Gosnell include one over the death of a 22-year-old Philadelphia woman, a mother of two, who died of a bloodstream infection and a perforated uterus in 2000. Gosnell sometimes sewed up such injuries without telling the women about the complications, prosecutors said.

Gosnell earned his medical degree from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and is board certified in family practice. He started, but did not finish, a residency in obstetrics-gynecology, authorities said.

Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore said: "He does not know how to do an abortion. Once he got them there, he saw dollar signs and did abortions that other people wouldn't do."

A local CBS station reported that around$240,000 in cash had been found when his house was searched.

It added that Gosnell had previously insisted he was innocent of any crimes and predicted he would be acquitted if he was charged.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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