Ed’s note: Four months after his conviction for the murder of children following botched abortions in his West Philadelphia clinic, Kermit Gosnell is speaking out from federal prison. In emails and phone calls to journalist Steve Volk, author of the new e-book Gosnell’s Babies, Gosnell explains how he broke the law and attempts to justify his heinous crimes. What follows is a passage from Volk’s book, excerpted with permission from Philadelphia Magazine.
FROM FEDERAL PRISON, GOSNELL can only spend a short time each day using email. He can generally only make one phone call per hour, when the phones are available, and then for only 15 minutes. So working through the issues took many weeks.
“No one in law enforcement,” he said, “either the police or the prosecutors, ever asked me about the population I worked with, the particular clinical challenge they represented, or why I ran my practice as I did.”
If they had displayed the slightest curiosity about his thinking or his philosophies as a doctor, he said, he might have been able to help them understand. He did not run a pill mill, he insisted. But he did employ liberal prescription standards. For instance, he gladly gave additional prescriptions to people he felt confident were addicted. And he didn’t exercise “proper control” over his prescription pad. Further, he did not kill any live babies. Some of his staff claimed he stopped bothering to use digoxin, but he denied that. “I administered Digoxin,” he said. “Those babies were fatally blighted. There were no signs of life.”
According to him, the only truly legitimate charges he faced involved relatively minor offenses within the Abortion Control Act. The doctor who launched his career as an abortion provider pre-Roe, when proper staffing was a luxury, never saw any need to change. He even admits he never made any of his patients wait the state-mandated 24 hours between receiving counseling on abortion services and beginning the procedure, reasoning that his patients knew their own hearts when they walked in the door. “Those licensing and staffing laws, the counseling law,” he said, “struck me as politically motivated. Barriers erected to abortion service. And I had very little respect for such laws, to tell you the truth.”
I was, perhaps, most stunned by his claim that he had never performed abortions past 24 weeks.
To support his argument, he delivered a long disquisition on “fundal height” — the distance from the top of the mother’s uterus to the top of the pubic bone — as a measure of gestational age. In fact, according to medical literature on the subject, measurements of “fundal height” are mostly used in clinics that don’t have access to ultrasound. Yet Gosnell used the more archaic means of measurement as more authoritative. And in one letter to me, he even admitted to “slanting the transducer” on the ultrasound in order to produce objective images that agreed with his subjective assessment. Gosnell kept documenting his own crime, writing down 24.5 weeks on chart after chart — a number past the legal limit.
“The law is very vague,” he told me, “and I had reasoned, mathematically, that 24.5 rounds down to 24.”
In practice, ob-gyns do round gestational age down from, say, 17 weeks, 4 days to 17 weeks. Gosnell implored me to “consult mathematicians” who would explain why I, and the courts and the prosecutors, were all wrong. But, Why are we talking about this? I asked him. The limit for abortion in Pennsylvania is 23 weeks, six days. Even if we round the numbers on the charts down to 24 weeks, who cares? That figure would still be illegal.
“The law is vague,” he said, “and poorly written. And I took it to mean, and I believe I was justified in doing so, that abortions could continue in the 24th week.”
What Gosnell meant, he went on to explain, is that he thought any gestational age with the number “24” in it was legal. For the record, the law reads that no abortion is permitted at “24 or more weeks.” Further, other abortion providers seem to understand the law perfectly well, from Dayle Steinberg, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood’s Southeastern Pennsylvania branch, to Leah Chamberlain at the Philadelphia Women’s Center. Besides, ignorance of the law isn’t a defense. So, finally, I tried to push him off these arguments — to find the chain tying the federal inmate he’d become to the activist doctor he had been in the past.
“You told some story about George Tiller when detectives asked you about those files,” I said. “And it just strikes me that given your whole history, if some woman came to you, desperate, and needed an abortion past 24 weeks, you would be inclined, you would feel obligated, by all your stated values, to give it to her.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I looked at each woman the way I would have looked at my own daughter. If I had a daughter in these circumstances, would I want her to have access to an abortion?”
If the answer was yes, he conducted an ultrasound exam with the goal of reaching a measurement in the 24th week. “My thought was that if it could be 24 weeks, that was good enough. If I could make that claim, and point to some measurement in that regard.”
To read the full version of this story, buy the e-book, Gosnell’s Babies, on Amazon.