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Pa. abortion trial stirs debate on life’s end

Kermit Gosnell faces capital murder charges.

Kermit Gosnell faces capital murder charges.

PHILADELPHIA — The high-profile murder trial of a Philadelphia abortion provider sparked courtroom debate Monday over when life ends, a tweak of the politically charged question of when life begins.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, faces capital murder charges in the deaths of four aborted babies, described by prosecutors as viable, born alive, and then killed at his busy West Philadelphia clinic.

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In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron called Gosnell’s operation an assembly line where a stream of poor, mostly minority women and teens endured hours of painful labor and delivery because Gosnell did not successfully abort babies in utero. He instead killed them with scissors after they were born, authorities said.

‘‘Are you human?’’ Cameron asked Gosnell, ‘‘to med these women up and stick knives in the backs of babies?’’

The doctor sat calmly at the defense table, as he has throughout the often graphic six-week trial.

Eight former workers have pleaded guilty to murder or other charges and have testified to seeing babies move, breathe, or whine. Yet some said they did not consider the babies fully alive until they were charged after a 2011 grand jury investigation.

Defense lawyer Jack McMahon has seized on that point and argued again Monday that the occasional spasms the workers saw were not the wriggling movements of a newborn baby. And he said prosecutors preyed on workers’ emotions and fears to manipulate them into taking pleas that were not always warranted by the facts.

‘‘They should be ashamed of themselves for that,’’ McMahon said.

He acknowledged that jurors have seen graphic, even grisly, photographs of aborted babies and bloody medical equipment.

‘‘Abortion — as is any surgical procedure — isn’t pretty,’’ McMahon said. ‘‘It’s bloody. It’s real. But you have to transcend that.’’

And he refused to back down from aggressive opening remarks in which he called prosecutors ‘‘elitist’’ and ‘‘racist’’ for pursuing his client, who is black and served mostly poor, minority women.

‘‘We know why he was targeted,’’ McMahon said.

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