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.