“Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” is a good old-fashioned courtroom drama. Earnest cops, thunderous defense lawyers, piteous victims, and the thrilling last-minute discovery of evidence that puts the killer away – it’s got all the standard of the genre. But it’s also a true-to-life horror story about an inner-city abortionist who, for decades, put thousands of low-income minority women through agonizing late-term abortions in a filthy clinic, routinely committing infanticide, all the while operating a massive pill-mill on the side.
Earl Billings plays Dr. Kermit Gosnell to perfection, reproducing the Philadelphia doctor’s odd if not repulsive affectations with eerie exactness. With a genial smile and undeniable personal warmth, Billings’ Gosnell reassures investigators and the jury that he has only erred in being too compassionate to the women who come to his clinic. It’s creepy stuff, surrounded as he is by decaying fetal remains and other evidence of his barbarity. Sarah Jane Morris, who plays the prosecutor, and Dean Cain, who plays the lead detective, capture the horror of confronting the fact that Gosnell was allowed to operate this way for decades. They experience utter disgust upon learning that the state health department refused to inspect abortion clinics. The reason: pro-abortion ideologues in City Hall feared that the kind of oversight that other medical offices receive would hamper the ability of women to get abortions.
“Gosnell” is a difficult movie to watch. Not because it’s gory, but because it’s true. The doctor’s horror-show/clinic did, indeed, operate with the city’s blessing for over thirty years behind a bland brick façade in inner-city Philadelphia. Gosnell really did perform thousands of illegal abortions on fetuses in their third trimester, and many of them really were born alive and were killed by a cut to the base of the skull. The real Gosnell did reuse instruments, giving women sepsis and STD’S, and at least two women died from severe neglect under his “care.”
Like the doctor in the movie, Gosnell also showed his white clients into cleaner, upstairs rooms, while leading his brown and black clients to the cat-infested basement. When the FBI raided the clinic in real life, they found a filthy facility where “semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room … covered with blood-stained blankets … sedated by unlicensed staff.” The grand jury report has all the heart-stopping, heart-breaking details and photos.
Perhaps courtroom dramas or horror films are not your thing. You should still seriously consider watching “Gosnell.” Caught as we all are in the never-ending political push-and-pull between pro-life and pro-abortion arguments, the movie is an education on the reality of late-term abortion and the way it is (under-) regulated and practiced on the street.
One of the movie’s most affecting scenes comes when an expert witness – an elegant, respectable, high-end abortion provider – faces the reality of Gosnell’s criminal negligence. She is horrified. Gosnell’s lawyer questions her to show that her abortions are cleaner, less painful, and the mothers safer at her hands. She uses ultrasound guidance and a long needle inside the womb, but it is obvious that the killing of the baby is not so very different. Gosnell simply did it the easy way – his killing takes place after the baby’s birth – making his way illegal. Ethically and humanly, the line is so thin that it vanishes before our eyes.
“Gosnell” also puts a different spin on regulations than pro-choice activists offer. Regulation and oversight of medical facilities are not meant to hamper access to abortion, but designed to protect women from negligence and corner-cutting practitioners like Gosnell. Along the same line, limiting abortion based on the age of gestation recognizes the physical and psychological toll that late-term abortion takes on women. It also provides protection against degradation and exploitation for lower-income, minority women in a culture that already puts too little value on the lives of the marginalized and vulnerable. The movie poses this question for a caring society: Should not abortion clinics be regulated more, not less, rigorously than manicure parlors?
Watch “Gosnell.” If you are a crime-drama junkie, you will love it. If you like a light horror film with much less gore than human interest, this is your film. If you are prepared to vote for political candidates who advocate unfettered abortion access through all nine months of pregnancy, then do all American women – especially minority and low-income women – a favor and see “Gosnell.” Consider it part of your civic education.
Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association.