By John Gillespie
Special to The CS&T

For Catholics and many others late-term abortions are a blatant assault on nature and human reason, the violent destruction of a child yet unborn but capable of living outside the womb. The Catholic Church teaches all abortions are wrong, but late-term or partial birth abortion seems especially egregious, the equivalent of infanticide.

Last week’s arrest of a West Philadelphia abortion doctor and eight others on his staff on multiple charges of first-degree murder rivets attention once more on partial birth abortion, which polls show most Americans oppose, even those who call themselves pro-choice.

The charge of murder gives this case special resonance in the abortion debate even if the unusual nature of the alleged offenses makes it unlikely that the case will serve as a precedent for future prosecutions. {{more}}

Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his staff, as cited in a Philadelphia grand jury report, were also charged with conspiracy to perform abortions after 24 weeks, which are illegal. But it is the murder charge that supersedes all, theoretically carrying the possibility of the death penalty.

Babies born, then killed
The grand jury alleges that seven babies for which records exist were actually born through induced labor – and not, strictly speaking, aborted. The babies were born and then killed by cutting their spinal cords. It would have been no different if the babies had been born after nine months then killed.

The report says the actual number of victims, which it estimates in the hundreds, will never be known since Gosnell systematically destroyed patient records.

“Any time a live, viable baby is delivered vaginally and then killed, it is first-degree murder,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. “This is about babies being born alive, kicking and screaming, and then taking scissors and severing their spines. That’s murder.”

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it “was both a shock and a horror to learn of the practices of Dr. Kermit B. Gosnell and his staff who now face criminal charges, including murder, in connection with the Women’s Medical Society at 38th Street and Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia, which was closed after a raid in February 2010.

“As Catholics, we believe in the dignity and sacredness of all human life from conception until natural death. 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 charges filed by the District Attorney’s Office today bear witness to these facts.

“The report’s use of the language of ‘infants and babies’ for the unborn and the charges of murder underscore our conviction that every child in the womb is created in the image and likeness of God.

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia offers fervent prayers for all who have been affected by these heinous practices. We are prepared to assist with support services for the women who suffered these abortions and stand ready to provide proper burial at the appropriate time for the aborted babies previously stored in Dr. Gosnell’s office.”

Scrutiny on words of abortion
As it unfolds, the case is certain to raise the decibel level in the bitter abortion debate

The blunt use of the murder charge in this case cuts through the euphemisms that often frame the debate, words like “fetus,” “tissue mass,” “protoplasm” and “products of conception,” as well as “reproductive rights.”

The grand jury’s 282-page report doesn’t mince words. It calls Gosnell’s clinic a “baby charnel house.”

The report’s recitation of more than 20 years of illegal practices with hundreds of babies killed adds a sense of banality to what was taking place inside the clinic.

The report detailed a practice of selling prescription painkillers during the day, and at night, performing abortions for women who could not get them elsewhere because their pregnancy was too advanced.

The report also blames various state and local health and licensing agencies for ignoring the warning signs.

The charge of murder focuses attention on the personhood of the unborn child. Several states have extended felony murder of a pregnant woman to include her unborn child. And others have attempted to do so, declaring in effect that the unborn are entitled to the full protection of the law.

Many Americans oppose late-term abortions. An ABC poll from 2003 found that 62 percent of respondents thought “partial-birth abortion” should be illegal.

John Gillespie is a freelance writer and member of St. Bridget Parish .