Karen Heller: Again, the Gosnell horrors drop off national radar

Posted: April 18, 2013

Prosecutors packed the courtroom with Dr. Kermit Gosnell's battered equipment, placed directly before the jury, the detritus of his ghastly practice.

A gray tufted vinyl recovery chair, similar to the one where Karnamaya Mongar moaned in pain before her death, has a side streaked with blood. An ancient yellow ultrasound machine and nonfunctioning defibrillator surround a torn ob-gyn exam table. Tucked in a corner is a tool kit containing jars of fetus feet.

Sam Gulino, the city's medical examiner, testified Monday that his examination of 47 frozen fetuses was "something that in 15 to 16 years . . . I had never been asked to do."

Gosnell is charged with eight homicides - Mongar and seven newborns. Now in its fifth week, the trial vacillates between horror and tedium.

But the gruesome prevails and overwhelms.

Mongar had visited three women's clinics in two weeks, trying to terminate her pregnancy, but was refused for being too far along in her second trimester. She spoke almost no English. Gosnell's Women's Medical Society, a last-chance center for desperate women, was willing to end her crisis.

Born in Bhutan, Mongar spent half her life in a crowded Nepalese refugee camp, raising her family in a wooden shed with a corrugated tin roof. In 2009, after two decades, she and her family got lucky. They moved to the United States and settled in Virginia.

Four months later, Mongar, a healthy 41-year-old, was dead. Prosecutors allege the cause was a Demerol overdose administered by Gosnell's unskilled staff.

"My mother said, 'We just came to this country. We have no money,' " her daughter, Yashoda Gurung, testified Tuesday through a translator, her voice barely a whisper. " 'I would not be able to support this baby. We all have to work.' "

After Mongar was pronounced dead, Damber Ghalley, a close friend referred to as Mongar's brother in the extended Bhutan familial culture, recalled that Gosnell told him: "I didn't do anything wrong. I'll be able to answer any question anywhere."

In the last week, critics - especially abortion foes - have faulted the national media as not covering the Gosnell trial, offering a range of possible reasons, including ideological, racial, and economic prejudice. The Gosnell case became a political story, a self-flagellating media story, yet reporters forget this is a brutal multiple homicide case. Almost no articles mentioned Mongar by name.

On Monday, a cadre of national reporters trooped into Judge Jeffrey Minehart's courtroom. Then the bombs exploded in Boston. By Tuesday, the out-of-town reporters were almost all gone, the story a one-day wonder.

Critics have described Gosnell's clinic as a haven for poor women of color, but that's not the complete story. Ignorance and desperation played a considerable role. On Monday, jurors heard from expert witness Dr. Charles Benjamin, who said he had performed 40,000 abortions in hospitals, clinics, and his office - with more than 60 percent of his patients receiving financial assistance. All while following medical protocol and employing a professional staff - an argument that poor women don't have to receive inferior care.

Women's Medical Society was a cruel misnomer for Gosnell's filthy clinic. The staff, all but one having pleaded guilty, performed medical tasks without adequate licenses or training (one woman has only a seventh-grade education) while remaining in awe of the largesse of their boss, Stockholm syndrome coupled with a pronounced God complex.

The 72-year-old doctor, tall with a courtly manner, his face dappled with freckles, sat Tuesday in the courtroom scribbling copious notes with a green Sharpie. There was a random smile, but he remained largely impassive while the litany of horrors continued unabated.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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