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Doctor accused of severing babies' spines with scissors in 'house of horrors'

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
March 4, 2013 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Dr. Kermit Gosnell is accused of performing illegal abortions past the 24-week limit prescribed by law.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell is accused of performing illegal abortions past the 24-week limit prescribed by law.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dr. Kermit Gosnell is charged with murdering seven babies and a pregnant woman
  • He's accused of killing infants who came out of the womb alive
  • Gosnell has pleaded not guilty
  • Jury selection begins Monday in his trial

(CNN) -- A Pennsylvania doctor is accused of running a "house of horrors" in which he performed abortions past the 24-week limit allowed by law -- even allegedly as late as eight months into pregnancy.

He used scissors, authorities say, to sever the spinal cords of newborns who emerged from their mothers still alive.

Now Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, is about to stand trial. He has pleaded not guilty. If he's convicted, prosecutors want him put to death.

"A doctor who cuts into the necks severing the spinal cords of living, breathing babies, who would survive with proper medical attention, is committing murder under the law," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said.

A grand jury investigation determined that health and licensing officials had received repeated reports about Gosnell's practices for two decades, but had taken no action, Williams said.

Gosnell's attorney has cautioned against a "rush to judgment."

"Dr. Gosnell should enjoy the same presumption of innocence anyone in this country, you or me, should get if we were charged with a crime," William J. Brennan said in 2011.

Jury selection was set to begin Monday.

The charges

Gosnell faces eight counts of murder: for the deaths of seven babies, and in the case of a 41-year-old woman who died of an anesthetic overdose during a second-trimester abortion.

The babies were born alive in the sixth, seventh and eighth months of pregnancy, but their spinal cords were severed with scissors, Williams said.

2011: Philadelphia doctor accused of murdering patient, newborns

"It was a house of horrors beyond any type of definition or explanation I can humbly try to give," Williams told CNN in January 2011, shortly after Gosnell was charged.

"And it's very sad for the women that were there, that were subjected to such horrific and barbaric -- I would say medical treatment, but it wasn't medical treatment."

Several other people who worked in the west Philadelphia medical office have already pleaded guilty to related charges.

A judge involved in the case said in 2011 that one of those employees was expected to testify against Gosnell.

The practice

The practice, called the Women's Medical Society, served mostly low-income minority women for years. Gosnell is not a board-certified obstetrician or gynecologist, Williams said.

Originally, he said, the clinic used another doctor as a consultant so it could receive a license to perform abortions in 1979.

"The doctor gained a reputation. People far and wide knew that he performed abortions at any time," Williams said.

2011: Philadelphia abortion clinic worker pleads guilty

In a 2010 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Gosnell said he was "a positive force in the community."

The reporter who interviewed him, David Gambacorta, told CNN that Gosnell believed he was helping an under-served population in his West Philadelphia neighborhood.

The scene

When authorities searched Gosnell's office, they found bags and bottles holding aborted fetuses scattered throughout the building.

Jars containing the severed feet of babies lined a shelf. Furniture and equipment was blood-stained, dusty and broken.

"My grasp of the English language doesn't really allow me to fully describe how horrific this clinic was -- rotting bodies, fetal remains, the smell of urine throughout, blood-stained," Williams said.

Williams described one of the alleged infant deaths.

"The baby had been born and was on a cold steel table and murdered by using -- there's no medical basis for snipping or taking scissors and putting them into the neck and cutting, severing the spinal cord. It's just homicide. It's just murder," Williams told CNN.

According to Philly.Com, a joint website of the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, Gosnell was back in court last Thursday, to mull a possible plea bargain.

It's unclear what the outcome of the meeting was, because of a gag order imposed on attorneys and other people involved in the case.

2011: Survivor of accused abortionist Kermit Gosnell tells her story

CNN's Sarah Hoye and Mike Martinez contributed to this report.

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