By Jon Hurdle
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Prosecutors charged a Philadelphia abortion doctor with murder on Wednesday, claiming he killed viable babies by cutting their spinal cords with scissors after removing them from mothers late in their pregnancies.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams charged Dr. Kermit Gosnell and nine associates with seven counts of murder involving babies, but said hundreds of others likely died in the squalid clinic that Gosnell ran from 1979 to 2010.
The defendants face first-degree murder in the cases of seven babies for which there is substantial evidence, Williams said. The babies were born alive and viable, he said.
"My comprehension of the English language can't adequately describe the barbaric nature of Dr. Gosnell," Williams said at a news conference.
Williams said he may seek the death penalty for Gosnell, 69, who with his associates was arrested on Wednesday.
Gosnell was charged with murder, infanticide, conspiracy, abortion at 24 or more weeks and other charges.
Pennsylvania law prohibits abortion after 24 weeks except to save the life of the mother or avoid serious health risk to her.
The doctor committed murder under the law, the prosecutor said at a news conference.
"I am aware that abortion is a hot-button topic," he said. "But as district attorney, my job is to carry out the law.
"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," he said.
Women who came to the clinic were given medication to induce delivery, and the viable babies were killed by Gosnell and his associates, Williams said.
He said Gosnell's clients, many of whom were poor, were charged $325 for a first-trimester abortion and between $1,625 and $3,000 for an illegal abortion after 24 weeks.
Gosnell also faces a charge of third-degree murder, stemming from the death of a mother who died from an overdose of anesthetics, he said.
The charges follow a year-long investigation by a grand jury, whose report was unveiled on Wednesday.
The report read, in part: "Although no one could place an exact number on the instances, Gosnell's staff testified that killing large, late-term babies who had been observed breathing and moving was a regular occurrence."
Prosecutors said the state Health Department was informed of violations at Gosnell's clinic as early as 1996 but failed to respond and did not visit the clinic until February 2010 when it was raided during a drug investigation.
The health department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The other defendants face charges including murder, conspiracy, racketeering and perjury.