PHILADELPHIA — Father Rayford Emmons prays for Dr. Kermit Baron Gosnell, the late-term abortionist currently on trial for murder in this city. Just like he has been doing for the last 15 years.
For more than a decade, starting in the late-1990s, the Philadelphia priest, along with about 15 to 20 pro-lifers, has processed out of morning Mass on the second Saturday of every month, walked three blocks, and kneeled outside Gosnell’s abortion facility to pray.
Father Emmons, one of the few black priests in Philadelphia, did not just pray for the unborn and the women in crisis there; he always added a special intention for the scurrying figure of Gosnell disappearing through the back to avoid the prayerful protesters.
Asked if he believed the prayerful protests had an effect, Father Emmons answered, “I think we’ve always made a difference. Sometimes it’s an invisible difference.” He said many women reconsidered going in just because of their presence, and several times they spoke to women who changed their minds. Sometimes Father Emmons would see faces in the window of the business shaking their heads at them.
Father Emmons remembers how he originally heard the news about Gosnell’s facility being shut down in late 2010. “I came back to the rectory, and there was a message on the answering machine. It was a guy named Dennis from the vigil. He said, ‘Father, I’ve got some great news.’”
The man told him that Gosnell’s business had been raided and closed down. Then he heard more. But it wasn’t great news.
A drug raid on the site had revealed an alleged “house of horrors” that eventually caused District Attorney Seth Williams to charge Gosnell with the first-degree murder of seven infants and third-degree murder in the 2009 death of Karnamaya Mongar, a 41-year-old refugee from Bhutan. Gosnell’s trial began in March, and it is expected to conclude later this month.
Eight co-defendants have already pleaded guilty but have not yet been sentenced.
Gosnell faces the death penalty if convicted, but Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999.
When babies were born alive in Gosnell’s facility, according to a grand-jury report, Gosnell and his staffers would slit their throats or stab them in the neck with scissors to sever their spinal cords. Gosnell even kept aborted babies in jars, sometimes in the same freezers where employees kept their lunches.
The abortionist even reportedly joked about the size of one his baby victims, saying, “This baby is big enough to walk around with me or walk me to the bus stop.”
Ensuing testimony recounted an alleged history of forced abortions, the death of women, live-birth abortions and procedures performed without anesthesia, Gosnell’s failure to staff his facility with licensed or qualified employees, and the botching of surgeries and then failing to summon emergency help.
Testimony at Gosnell’s murder trial has been equally grisly. Mongar’s death, prosecutors charged, was caused when untrained workers overdosed her with multiple doses of Demerol and other drugs to anesthetize her. In fact, prosecutors said that the woman administering anesthesia was a sixth-grade dropout.
Gosnell’s defense lawyer, Jack McMahon, seemingly attempted to blame the victim, saying Mongar hid respiratory problems that made her more vulnerable to Demerol.
Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore told jurors that Gosnell forced women to deliver live babies that were then killed by staff with scissors. “The standard practice here was to slay babies. That’s what they did,” said Pescatore.
A medical assistant, Adrienne Moton, who has already pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, told the jury that she snipped the spines of at least 10 babies in Gosnell’s facility. She also said Gosnell had instructed her in that method of killing babies.
While McMahon denied Moton’s charge that any babies were born alive, Moton cried in court as she told jurors about taking a cellphone photograph of one baby estimated to be about 30 weeks from the time of conception when it was aborted by Gosnell. Jurors were shown the picture on a large screen.
McMahon told the jury that the government cannot prove the seven babies were born alive. There is no physical evidence on five of the deaths; the murder charges instead are based on staff testimony that the babies were born alive and killed with scissors.
However, authorities do have the photograph of the sixth baby, as well as the body of the seventh victim.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia released a statement calling the details of Gosnell’s business “both a shock and a horror.”
“As Catholics, we believe in the dignity and sacredness of all human life from conception until natural death,” said the archdiocesan statement. “The repeated actions of Dr. Gosnell and his staff were abhorrent and intrinsically evil in their disregard for the lives of the unborn and the welfare of the women who sought their services.”
The archdiocese also said that the charges “underscore our conviction that every child in the womb is created in the image and likeness of God.”
Decades of Misconduct?
The murder charges ended Gosnell’s 40-year career in abortion in Philadelphia, where he was reportedly performing over 1,000 abortions per year, according to the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia.
Gosnell was an active abortionist before even Roe v. Wade declared abortion a constitutional right in 1973. In fact, Gosnell’s history of controversial conduct began on Mother’s Day weekend in 1972, when a bus from Chicago pulled up in front of an illegal abortion facility in West Philadelphia.
In order to force a public standoff on the legality of abortion, a California abortion activist named Harvey Karman had gathered 15 low-income women in their second trimester of pregnancy and put them on a bus from Chicago to Philadelphia, where Gosnell would conduct experimental second-term abortions on them called the “super coil.”
As it was less science than publicity stunt, the media was invited. A group of feminists protested the experimental abortion procedure and even reportedly went as far as flattening the tires of the bus, but the Philadelphia district attorney at the time was a young Arlen Specter. The future pro-abortion Republican U.S. senator was able to get Gosnell convicted of practicing medicine without a license, but a Common Pleas Court overturned it in 1974, ruling that Specter failed to show which women Gosnell had treated.
The experiment went awry, and nine of the 15 women suffered serious complications, including infections, body parts of babies left in their mothers, a perforated uterus, internal bleeding and one hysterectomy. It came to be known as the “super coil debacle” or the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”
Almost No Oversight
For 40 years afterward, Gosnell operated with hardly any oversight or regulation.
Pennsylvania Department of Health employee Elinor Barsony testified at the murder trial that Gosnell’s business had not been inspected by the state in about 20 years. In fact, it was only a federal investigation into Gosnell being a “pill mill” that was dispensing prescriptions at a profitable price that prompted the original 2010 raid.
In 2011, a Philadelphia woman who had an abortion at Gosnell’s facility and later became a pro-lifer testified at the State Capitol in Harrisburg about her suffering under the hands of Gosnell and the need for increased oversight of abortion businesses.
Tyhisha Hudson said she had an abortion performed by Gosnell as a teen because he offered the cheapest abortions. And Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams, drawing on the grand-jury investigation into Gosnell’s conduct, told state legislators that there had been “more oversight of women’s hair salons and nail salons” than of abortion facilities in Pennsylvania.
The state subsequently passed legislation that forced abortion providers to follow the same regulations as other medical providers. Other states like Texas and North Dakota have followed suit.
Despite what Dave Andrusko, editor of National Right to Life News, called “a complete media blackout nationally” of the Gosnell trial, the disturbing testimony about his medical practices continues to have an effect, according to pro-life advocates. “I believe things have gotten better,” said Edel Finnegan of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia.
“Any time our society is awakened to the reality of the abortion industry and the humanity of the unborn child, which all came out of this, that’s a good thing,” said Finnegan. “Good can come out of that.”
Finnegan said that every abortion-minded woman that she has spoken to in Philadelphia has heard about Gosnell and is concerned and worried. “We need to continue to shine a light on it,” she said.
NARAL Pro-Choice America did not respond to questions from the Register about the Gosnell case.
Mallory Quigley, communications director for the Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Our hope is that this horrific case forces us, as a nation, to re-examine the child in the womb and whether or not his or her life deserves protection. Americans across the country were rightfully outraged when this case first came to light. Now, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why is it okay that these babies can have their lives ended if only it takes place inside the womb?’”
Father Emmons transferred to another parish in Philadelphia, but the pro-life vigil he started at Gosnell’s abortion facility continues regularly. Sadly, they can still walk to the nearest abortion facility, despite the closing of Gosnell’s operation.
Father Emmons says he continues to pray for the scurrying figure who entered through the back door.
“God wants us to save the world,” he said. “Every second of life is an opportunity to save others, so I pray for his conversion.”
Register correspondent and blogger Matt Archbold writes from Philadelphia.