Abortion Doctor’s Murder Trial Sparks Media Debate

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Dr. Kermit Gosnell, in an undated photo provided by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office

Some journalists are asking why the murder trial of a Philadelphia abortion doctor isn’t receiving more coverage.

In 2010, police raided Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic, called the Women’s Medical Society, in a low-income neighborhood of West Philadelphia and found what a grand jury report called a “baby charnel house” where illegal and late-term abortions were performed under dangerous conditions. Now on trial, Gosnell is charged with the deaths of one patient and seven babies allegedly born alive during abortion procedures; eight former employees — none of whom were certified doctors — may also face prison time.

(MORE: Why the Pennsylvania Abortion Doc’s Case Is About Poverty, Not Roe v. Wade)

A 2011 grand jury report detailed the illegal and late-term abortions Gosnell performed, as well as the disturbing conditions at Gosnell’s clinic — including bloodstained furniture, a heavy stench of urine and scattered feces from roaming cats. Some abortions were done so late, according to the report, that Gosnell allegedly snipped the babies’ spinal chords after they were born and still breathing.

The grand jury also estimated that Gosnell’s abortion practice took in about $1.8 million a year, mostly in cash, assuming he conducted only three procedures a night. And that did not include the additional income he received from allegedly writing illegal prescriptions. Read the full report of charges here. (Please note: the document contains graphic descriptions.)

TIME covered the charges here in a 2011 story.

While Gosnell’s trial began on March 18, media controversy is now mounting after USA Today contributor Kirsten Powers wrote a column chastising the media for the lack of trial coverage, arguing that bias obstructed the story from making headlines. She wrote:

Let me state the obvious. This should be front page news. When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, there was non-stop media hysteria. The venerable NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams intoned, “A firestorm of outrage from women after a crude tirade from Rush Limbaugh,” as he teased a segment on the brouhaha. Yet, accusations of babies having their heads severed — a major human rights story if there ever was one — doesn’t make the cut.

You don’t have to oppose abortion rights to find late-term abortion abhorrent or to find the Gosnell trial eminently newsworthy. This is not about being “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” It’s about basic human rights.

Other outlets and columnists have since weighed in as well. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf called the news value of the story “undeniable,” and Megan McArdle, a special correspondent for the Daily Beast, wrote a commentary, “Why I Didn’t Write About Gosnell’s Trial — and Why I Should Have,” saying, “I wish I had followed it more closely, even though I’d rather not.”

The Daily Beast does point out that in 2011, reporters covered the charges against Gosnell:

The Gosnell story wasn’t blacked out. Here’s an NPR story from a year ago, a Slate story, one from Time, CNN, the Associated Press, and the Daily Beast.

Still, it’s undeniable that media coverage, including our own, has picked up again after Powers’ brought the gruesome trial back to into the spotlight.

(MORE: Philly Abortion Horrors: What Matters Is How and Not When an Abortion Is Done, Says Expert)

Antiabortion advocates are using the case as a call for new restrictions; meanwhile, pro-choice supporters are calling it an example of what happens when women are denied access to safe and cost-friendly care. In 2011, when Gosnell was formally charged, TIME’s Belinda Luscombe wrote that although both sides were making arguments for how the case proves their opponents are wrong, the situation is really most related to poverty. She wrote:

Gosnell’s techniques — using untrained staff, operating the business day and night, not maintaining equipment and not keep up with modern medical techniques (using Demerol is frowned upon these days) — are typical of those in any business trying to cut corners to keep costs low. It’s likely that he was the cheapest abortion provider around in a community that’s not accustomed to the highest health care standards anyway.

Gosnell is currently facing both first- and third-degree murder charges. Three of his eight employees are pleading guilty to third-degree murder. The Associated Press reports that Gosnell’s defense lawyer is arguing that no babies were born alive, and that “unforeseen complications” caused the death of the 41-year-old woman he was performing an abortion on. The trial will resume on Monday.

MORE: Late-Term Abortions: Q&A With the Last Remaining Doctor Who Performs Them