Abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell's murder trial sparks political firestorm

Dr. Kermit Gosnell during an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News at his attorney's office in Philadelphia, March 8, 2010.
AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News, Yong Kim

(CBS News) The gruesome trial of an abortion provider resumes in Philadelphia Monday. The doctor, Kermit Gosnell, is charged with killing a female patient and seven babies.

Gosnell's name may not be familiar, and that makes some abortion rights opponents angry. The case has suddenly become a political firestorm.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell Murder Trial: Unlicensed doc fled Pa. abortion clinic raid, receptionist testifies

This week, prosecutors will continue to call witnesses as they seek the death penalty against Gosnell. So far, several patients and about a half dozen former employees have testified about the conditions at his clinic.

It started three years ago as a federal investigation into prescription drug sales, but inside Gosnell's Philadelphia abortion clinic, law enforcement encountered a grisly scene. The clinic has been described as a "house of horrors," filled with stray cats and animal waste, with 47 fetuses piled into a freezer. Prosecutors say that this routine drug raid became something much more serious.

The doctor has been charged in the murder of a woman during a botched abortion, as well as the murder of seven babies born alive.

The allegations stunned the city. An established clinic, operating for more than 30 years and drawing patients from across the country, was, prosecutors allege, a "house of horrors" where Gosnell performed illegal late-term abortions after 24 weeks and murdered babies who survived the procedure.

The conditions inside the clinic -- graphically detailed in the grand jury report -- were squalid: unsterilized equipment that infected women with venereal disease and untrained workers performing procedures and sedating patients.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said, "The grand jury went to the scene wearing Hazmat suits."

Gosnell was the target of multiple complaints to the state medical board, but state officials had not inspected the clinic since 1993. Gosnell, on trial for his life, says he's not guilty.

Walt Hunter has covered the case since 2010 for CBS News' Philadelphia station KYW. "There are images and details of this story that I am never going to be able to wash out of my mind," he said.

Hunter broke the original story, and is now covering the trial, where clinic employees have begun to testify. Hunter said, "You can look at the skyline of Philadelphia and some of the top medical facilities in the country right from the front of that clinic. This was not hidden away."

But outside the state, few have even heard about the allegations against Gosnell because his trial has received little national news coverage. CBS News reported on the story at the time it broke in 2011. Just last week, a column in USA Today accused the media of ignoring the story because of what it called a bias in favor of abortion rights. Those charges went viral on Twitter and were picked up by Republicans in Congress.

"Will the decades-long national news media cover-up of the brutality and the violence of abortion methods ever end?" Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., asked.

Criminal defense attorney William Brennan has been involved in many high-profile trials, and even represented Gosnell until the drug case became a murder case. He said, "A case involving a medical doctor charged with eight counts of murder. It would seem to me that just that fact pattern would make national news."

Watch Jan Crawford's full report in the video above.

But looming over this case is the debate over abortion rights. Opponents say it illustrates the brutality of abortion and how it's taking a human life, while supporters of abortion rights, who have condemned Gosnell, say it highlights the need for clean, safe places for women to have legal abortions.

Though the issues in this case have sparked political outrage over abortion rights, in the courtroom -- it's about something else, CBS News legal analyst Jack Ford said on "CBS This Morning."

"It's really a murder trial. In some ways, people look at it and say it sounds almost as if it's a medical malpractice case, but it's far more serious than that. Because the prosecution is saying, 'Look, deplorable conditions, the type of things you would argue about in a medical malpractice case, but they're saying it's much more than that because they claim he actually took the lives of seven babies that were born viable, functioning, and that he ended their lives. And with regard to the one woman involved, they're saying that his treatment was so grossly reckless that, again, much more than malpractice, but actually criminal, charged with murder, third-degree murder."

For more with Ford, watch the video below.


Gosnell's defense is "interesting," Ford said. He explained, "The defense is saying, 'First of all, I didn't do this. So these allegations that I literally ended the lives of seven babies that were born alive, I did not do that. With regard to the death of the woman, it was a terrible accident, but again, I'm not a criminal. And the claim is, look, this may well be a horrible facility, but that's not enough.' This is what the defense is saying, for him to be determined to be a criminal."

Particularly troubling in this case is the oversight of the clinic, Ford said. "There are a lot of things very troubling coming out of this. One of them, people have argued, if this was a high-end medical facility, would people have been inspecting it, but because it serves people on the low end of the economic spectrum, the argument is, there's another illustration of people who are just sort of allowed to let slide in the health care system."