A Powerful Movie with an Important Lesson


I knew the story well. I read the book when it was first released and contributed to the crowd funding campaign that helped launch the movie. I knew the details, knew the outcome, and knew what to expect in almost every scene. Nevertheless, my knowledge was insufficient to constrain my tears. At several points in the movie my eyes overflowed. Anger, disgust and sadness rose within me at the horror depicted and my emotions took over. The movie is Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.

The movie is powerful, and it may be the most important movie you have never heard about.

Gosnell was a gynecologist in Philadelphia who ran a private abortion clinic. He specialized in abortions other doctors wouldn’t do. Many of them shouldn’t have been done for legal reasons. Pennsylvania law, similar to the majority of states, prohibits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, the age at which many babies can survive outside the womb. Gosnell ignored the law and routinely provided late term abortions, including on babies at 30 weeks of gestation or more.

Term limitations for pregnancy terminations were not the only laws he held in contempt. He did not adhere to the most basic health and safety regulations. He reused instruments without cleaning them, allowed cats to wander through, and defecate, in the office, and had assistants with no medical education or training give IV sedation to patients when he was not in the building. He also made thousands of dollars illegally prescribing opioids.

While it was the selling of narcotic prescriptions to addicts and dealers that first led authorities to his clinic, it was his failure to appropriately medicate and monitor patients, combined with providing very late term abortions, that ultimately led to his undoing.

During the course of the narcotics probe investigators searched his facility. In addition to deplorable filth, non-functional equipment and unattended patients they found dozens of aborted fetuses in bags, milk cartons and jars. Several of them were clearly far beyond the 24 week limit. Clinic employees, aware of their own possible criminal liability, told the police about other horrors. They related tales of severe injuries to patients, including the recent death of a mother who had undergone a botched late term procedure. Perhaps most horrifying, they told of late-term patients being given drugs to induce abortion who ended up spontaneously and unintentionally delivering live babies. These viable babies could have survived with appropriate medical care. Dr. Gosnell‘ s common means of handling such cases was brutal. He would dispassionately take a pair of scissors and cut the spinal cord at the base of the skull, murdering the child. (He was charged for 7 such deaths in the movie. The grand jury report suggested he had similarly ended the lives of hundreds of babies in this fashion over the years.)

When I read the book and while I watched the movie I found myself wondering, “How could something like this happen?”

For Gosnell, it was clear that he was overcome with greed, deceit and hubris. Greed, because in illegal abortions he discovered a lucrative cash business. He did not need to deal with insurance billing, and as he dealt with poor and desperate patients he had little fear of being reported to the authorities. Deceit, as he told himself that their was nobility and honor in providing women with a service no one else would provide. Hubris, for he thought himself so noble that laws and regulations did not apply to him, and that the deaths that occurred on his watch and at his hands were not his fault. They were expected and appropriate.

Though astonishing, I find Gosnell’s individual evil something I can process and partially comprehend. I know there are evil people in the world, and I know there are bad doctors as well. There are over 950,000 physicians in the United States, and one would expect that there must be at least a few terrible individuals among their number. There is no such thing as perfect screening or perfect oversight, and some bad people are bound to slide through the medical admissions, education and training process.

While I can rationalize the existence of an evil individual, I cannot come to grips with the systemic evil that allowed Gosnell to do what he did. Grand jury and trial testimony revealed an astonishing truth. The Pennsylvania health department had declined to perform any quality inspections on the clinic for 17 years. While hospitals, surgical centers and even nail salons were regularly required to undergo mandatory inspections, process reviews, and quality checks, the governor had ordered that abortion clinics not be assessed at all. Multiple reports were submitted about Gosnell, including reports of patients infected with STD’s due to contaminated equipment, life-threatening injuries resulting in hysterectomies and intestinal damage, and at least two patient deaths. All were intentionally ignored.

The reasons behind the decision to not inspect were chillingly simple. The pro-choice governor feared that inspections might reveal that some abortion clinics were unsafe or dangerous, and that such reports could provide ammunition to pro-life advocates who might seize on such reports to push for limits on abortion. Simply put, those commissioned with protecting patients were more interested in protecting an agenda. The cause was more important than the people it was supposed to serve. A woman’s right to an abortion was more important than a woman’s safety.

This biased agenda was not limited to state agents and agencies. One would think that a trial involving 8 murder counts and over 200 other criminal charges against  a physician with a 30-year history in the community would have been front page news in Philadelphia. The trial was universally ignored. The empty courtroom seats revealed just how politically sensitive the abortion issue was.

It is still politically sensitive. Although the film is in wide release in over 670 theaters and likely to debut in the top 10 films at the box office, most newspapers have ignored it. The website MetaCritic lists only a single review (Another movie released into 248 theaters this week, “The Hate You Give”, has 34 reviews.) I have read some of the few reviews and articles about the movie that are available, and they say Gosnell is an “anti-abortion movie” intended for “conservative Christians.” While it is true that the Gosnell story may be used to bolster the arguments of those who are against abortion, these authors and critics appear to have a bias that prevents them from seeing the larger point of the movie. It is more about evil and its coverup than it is about abortion. Regardless of the issue, there is always a danger of putting an issue ahead of the people who are supposed to be served. When things become more important than people, terrible things happen.

(This loss of focus can be found on the pro-life side as well. The Catholic Church, perhaps the world’s loudest voice on behalf of unborn life, is currently embroiled in a massive abuse scandal. A grand jury in  the same state of Pennsylvania recently released its findings on the systematic coverup of sexual abuse by over 300 priests over several decades. Church leaders apparently decided protecting the church and her reputation was more important than protecting the children she claimed to serve.)

It is easy to sit in judgment of Kermit Gosnell and the state officials who turned a blind eye to his crimes, to bemoan the failings of the Catholic Church and its priests, and to tell ourselves we would never do such a thing. We need to be careful, to continually examine ourselves for any signs of such self-deceit. The story of Gosnell, in fact the story of all human history, reminds us that human beings have a profound capacity for self-justification and a remarkable ability to overlook evil when it serves our agenda.

We must be ever vigilant.

- Bart

I strongly encourage seeing the movie. It is extremely well done and manages to communicate the horrors of Gosnell without gore or offense.  

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?


I have read a lot these last few weeks about the division and hatred that now characterize political debate in the United States. There appears to be no room left for simple disagreement. Sides have been chosen, battle lines have been drawn and enemies clearly identified. Winning is no longer enough, for many it seems that destruction of others is the goal. The questions arise, “Is there any hope for us? How can I make a difference?”

I stumbled across the answer a few weeks ago in my men’s Bible study group. We had just finished a several month’s long review of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ remarkable discourse on the nature of a godly life. To the Jewish people living under Roman rule, people looking to overthrow their oppressors and restore their freedom, Jesus taught sacrificial love for their enemies. He told people to bless those who persecuted them, to pray for those who would do them harm.

His words were challenging then and they are challenging now. Even more, they seem nice and sweet on the page but impractical in reality. There are some people who seem out of reach, some people with whom no peace seems possible. There are cultures too different, beliefs too contradictory, for common ground to be found.

While this is a natural assumption the gospel writer made it clear that Jesus did not intend his teaching to be merely theoretical. He demonstrated this immediately following his discourse. In two successive interactions with outcast and despised individuals he showed how it is we can go about breaking down barriers with those who are different from us.

The first encounter was with a leper. Lepers were social outcasts, banned from societal contact and interactions. Their disease was viewed as more than a contagious illness, it was a sign of condemnation and separation from God. When the man approached Jesus in search of healing Jesus did not scorn him or reject him (the standard responses of the day). He saw him as a man in need of physical and spiritual healing. Against all societal conventions and norms, Jesus reached out and touched the man, healing him.

The second encounter was with a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated empire. The centurion came to Jesus on behalf of a paralyzed servant. Jesus’ response to news of the Roman servant’s plight had to stun all those who heard it, “I will come.” He was willing to enter the home of someone considered by others to be the enemy, to go where no one else would go.

In each of these cases I believe Jesus was motivated by perception. Where others saw ethnicity and illness he saw men in need. He did not see a leper or a Roman he saw men created by God, in God’s image. He did not see them as outcasts or enemies but as children of God. It was not that the men were not different from Jesus, it was that the differences were not as important to Jesus as was their humanity.

A powerful example for all of us. Peace can only be found when people choose to focus on our common humanity, common desires to be loved, understood and known, and on the value that comes from being people created in the image of God. When we focus on anything else we lose sight of our shared condition and division is inevitable.

  • Bart

Success Defined. Differently

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When I was in elementary school I loved classroom competitions. I looked forward to spelling bees, timed tests and word puzzles. One of my favorite educational games was “around the world.” The desks were arranged in a circle, with one student standing. The standing student would be paired with a sitting student and the teacher would hold up a flash card with a math calculation. The student who answered correctly first “won” and moved on to the next desk. The goal, for me, was to go “around the world”, to defeat every other student in the class. I loved the game, as I rarely lost.

Looking back now, I see the game was stupid. As fun and as challenging as it was to me, it had to have been demoralizing for those in the class for whom math was a struggle. I am sure many of them felt like not trying at all, seeing the “game” as just one more opportunity to be humiliated.

It had a negative impact on me as well. The game fed a warped sense of self, the idea that it was my academic performance that gave me value, that good grades made me special. Educational success, being smart, was a major component of my self-esteem. It left me with a precarious view of self that failure could easily destroy. 

It took me decades to realize that academic successes were nothing to brag about. My school acheivements were primarily due to genetics, not effort. I was the son of a brilliant man who passed his genes on to me. For me, being proud of my GPA would be like a 7 foot tall person being proud of their height. While intelligence and height can be advantageous and beneficial, they are not something anyone earns or works for.

I have finally reached the point in my life where I have learned to measure success differently. What is important to me are the things that I work for the things that do not come naturally, even in my medical practice. While making a correct diagnosis is important, even crucial, I am realizing this is not the best way for me to measure the success of a visit. I now measure success of a patient interaction on the things that take effort, the things that are challenging for me, such as the clarity of my communication and the patient’s comfort and understanding with what I say. If the patient is not satisfied with their care, I have not succeeded.

I need to do this in every area of my life. It is the successes I work for, the changes brought by diligent effort, of which I should be most proud.  When my worth comes from the things that I strive for and not just on the things I am born with, I know I am on the road to being a better person.

 - bart

Friend, Patient, Candidate


 “I’m running for city council!” KC’s words caught me off guard. Although I have lived in Huntington Beach since 1993 I have never been involved in city politics. My interactions with elected officials have been pretty much limited to waving at them as they passed by during the 4th of July parade. My experience with city hall is equally limited, centered around construction permits and business licenses.  It was surprising to realize that a friend of mine might soon be a part of city government. Yet as I thought about the man I know KC to be, it made sense.

I have known KC Fockler for over 20 years. Our kids played youth sports together and his son was on a baseball team I coached. I had a lot to learn about coaching and on one occasion my inexperience resulted in me being less than fair to his son. KC pulled me aside to talk it over. I do not remember the specific words he spoke but I have never forgotten the grace and kindness he displayed. He was right and I was wrong but he did not approach me with anger or condescension. He gave me the benefit of the doubt and treated me with respect. He had class.

A few years later KC showed up as a patient in my office. The fact that he trusted me as his doctor was further evidence that he had chosen to see the best in me. Over the years that followed I saw him for physicals and routine health care, with plenty of time for us to catch up on life and family. We talked about his job and our kids. It was clear to me that he was a good dad, a good teacher and a good man. He cares about people and he cares about our city.

In the few months since he told me about his candidacy we have talked more about his heart for Huntington Beach. One Saturday we met for breakfast so we could talk in depth about what he hoped to accomplish. I should not have been surprised, but he seemed more interested in my thoughts about Huntington Beach than he was in sharing his own. He came with a note pad and made notes of my questions and concerns.

When I asked about his plans his answers were straightforward and sincere. He wants to serve. He wants to help people get involved, to participate, to be invested. He wants Huntington Beach to be a city that feels more like a small town, where ideas are welcomed and citizens are served. He showed remarkable insight into the issues our city faces, from pension liabilities to homelessness, with a willingness to consider any solution.

A few weeks ago KC impressed me even more. I sat in his living room in a meeting he hosted with people interested in his campaign. He was once again in listening mode. I later learned exactly how intently he had been listening. Someone had brought up issues of trash in the local parks. It was a little thing, something that could be easily dismissed, but not by KC. The next day he made a call to Republic Services, the trash collection agency that serves Huntington Beach, and came up with a possible solution!

I am not informed enough to know how to solve the problems of my city. The issues are complex and challenging. I am nonetheless comforted in the knowledge that there is at least one good man with integrity who is willing to serve, a man I am proud to call a friend.

- Bart

Huntington Beach residents who want to know more about KC can call him at 714-722-1710, or visit his website at https://www.surfcitycouncil.org/about.html

Let Them Not Eat Cake


Why won’t the government let Jack be wrong?

This question has repeatedly run through my mind over the last few years as I have followed the story of Jack Phillips. Jack is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado. He is a man of deep religious convictions who believes that marriage was created by God to be the union of one man and one woman. His beliefs are so strong that they preclude him from supporting gay marriage in his work. As a matter of policy he does not design wedding cakes for gay weddings. For this position he was disciplined by the Colorado civil rights commission which mandated he not only make cakes for same sex weddings but that he and his staff undergo sensitivity training. Convinced that complying with the commission would require him to compromise his beliefs he stopped wedding cakes (which were 40% of his business) and decided to fight the ruling in court. He appealed the decision of the commission all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled narrowly in his favor.

The ink was barely dry on the Supreme Court decision before the Colorado commission again came after Mr. Phillips. His offense this time was a refusal to back a custom cake celebrating the male to female  “transition” of a transgender individual. It does not appear to matter to the commission that there are dozens of other bakeries who are willing to bake the types of cakes requested, nor that Mr. Phillips is being targeted by activists opposed to his views. In the eyes of the commissioners, Jack Phillips is a bad man who must be punished.

In understand why people disagree with Mr. Phillips, but I confess I do not understand why he is being singled out by a government agency. The question comes to mind, “Why won’t the commissioners let Jack be wrong?”

This question brings clarity to the debate. Countless columns, opinions and articles have been written about the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, each setting forth arguments as to the rightness or wrongness of Mr. Phillips’ position. I think they all miss the point.

The question is not whether or not Mr. Phillips is wrong in his position. The question is, why does the government care? People do wrong things all of the time. One might even argue that the freedom to do wrong and stupid things is at the heart of what it means to be free.

We can find stupid decisions almost anywhere. I recently went to visit a dermatologist who as a matter of policy refuses to see any patient who arrives at the office more than 7 minutes after their scheduled appointment time. The policy is rude, arbitrary, and unkind. No allowances are made for traffic or weather or forgetfulness. If you’re late, you’re not being seen. His policy has cost him patients and resulted in negative Yelp reviews yet he believes he is doing the right thing for his business.

I visited a church recently that has a flier in the pew that reads, “PLEASE, NO CHILDREN IN THE SANCTUARY DURING SERVICES… the age limit for children is 12 years and older…” I imagined how that might feel to a visiting parent of a shy 11 year old who wanted to sit in the service. While I understood the intention, the wording caught me off guard and I considered it offensive.

While I think that both the church and the dermatologist are “wrong”, I understand that they believe they are doing something right. They are free to make decisions in accordance with their beliefs and I have the right to choose to go elsewhere. If anyone forced the church or dermatologist to change their actions, they would no longer be free.

Living in a free society means that we will need to get along with people who disagree with us, people who do things differently than us and who believe differently than us. The day right and wrong are determined by majority rule, the day we are compelled to go along with the masses, will be the day freedom disappears for all of us.


PS- I don’t think Jack is wrong and I have donated to his cause. I am just wondering how we reached the point where our government is so hateful towards one man’s beliefs.