The legal limit for abortion in Pennsylvania is 23 weeks and six days. Theoretically, a termination one minute beyond that could become the basis of a homicide rap. Yet, there is no visible or measurable difference between a foetus of 23 weeks and one of 24 weeks. The self-evident arbitrariness of such a law announces itself as quite devoid of reason and morality, and thus offers a provocation to the consciences of those whose reasoning mechanisms derive their logic from a perhaps unfocussed belief that man might become his own God.
Such a man was Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphian abortionist who in 2013 was put away for the rest of his natural for the unnatural crimes that to him seemed to represent naturalistically good deeds. The soon-to-be-released movie Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is a taut encapsulation of the horror that ensued from Gosnell’s assumption of crypto-divinity. Most true stories do not become dramatic ones without some kind of creative manipulation, but this is one of those rare quasi-Biblical tales that occasionally emerge fully formed from the acts of men, as though by some divine orchestration of character and plot.
Abortion is thoroughly of the modern world in that it is a purely ideological invention. Even the word for it is makey-up: there is no objective reason why it ought not be called infanticide and seen, as in ancient Carthage, for what it was. Its latter-day transference to the medical context creates ambiguities on which a global industry has been constructed, now accounting for some 56 million deaths per year. This objectively astonishing situation has been enabled by the cultural shifting of the line dividing evil from good, and the avoidance of the image of the act itself, which thus remain unique in Western culture as a kind of subterranean ‘cleansing’ of the innocents.
Kermit Gosnell — named for the youngest son of Teddy Roosevelt, of whom his grandfather was an admirer — was a creature of the netherword that has evolved on and around this thin moral borderline. Gosnell, you might say, was a man in whom the pathology of the collective lies about abortion became so concentrated that it became inevitable that even a deeply reluctant state would one day be forced to collar him.
He snipped the spines of babies using a scissors applied to the neck. He stored the severed feet of babies in a jar as trophies of his conquests. He played duck and drakes with ultrasound scanners to manipulate the recorded gestation times. He reused single-use equipment and kept live turtles in his clinic — as well as cats to keep vermin under control. Cat faeces littered everywhere, including his operating theater.
Gosnell employed as assistant abortionists uneducated, illiterate women who did his bidding without question. Over the course of 30 years of unchallenged operation at his hours of horrors, the Philadelphia Women’s Medical Society at 3801 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia, he and his band of helpers snuffed out the lives of countless children and caused the deaths of several women. He knew the state law said 24 weeks, but recorded numerous abortions in which he put the gestation period down as 24.5 weeks; when asked, he explained that he was ‘rounding down’. Money — greed — is believed to have been Gosnell’s sole or prime motivation in committing his now notorious crimes.
Most abortionists walk around as respectable members of society. Gosnell is now in jail not because the cries of his victims were heard by the Pennsylvania authorities crying out to heaven for vengeance, but thanks to a drug bust on the trail of a fake prescription racket. The cops — all pro-choicers, including some Catholics — just couldn’t believe what they found. For years, despite numerous complaints, the authorities had turned blind eyes to Gosnell. This approach was to survive through much of the process that followed, with both the District Attorney and the judge chairing the grand jury insisting that nothing in the case should seek to question ‘abortion rights’.
That mentality extended also to the media, who for nearly a month declined to cover the Gosnell trial until shamed into it by a blogger who illicitly tweeted photos of the courtroom’s empty press benches. Even then, the coverage was studded with equivocation, euphemism and prevarication. And the equivocation goes on. National Public Radio last month refused to broadcast an ad for the movie using terms like ‘abortionist’ or ‘abortion doctor’, even though NPR’s own reporting of the case had described Gosnell in precisely those terms.
The Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto described non-coverage of the trial as ‘the banality of bias’:
‘Laziness, prejudice and pride are ordinary human failings. As we’ve seen from the press’s coverage of the Gosnell story, they can lead those whose calling it is to bear witness to avert their eyes from radical evil.’
This is perhaps the most important thing to be said. The Gosnell movie provides us with a test-tube case that demonstrates with utter clarity the process by which little horrors grow into big ones, while ostensibly good men and women stand by and do nothing. Frame by frame, Gosnell tears apart everything America has told itself and the world about abortion.
In making his points, director Nick Searcy eschews manipulative techniques, and relies on the factual story. It is, if anything, understated. If you stood outside a TV store window watching without benefit of sound, you might for a time think you were watching an old episode of Law & Order or NYPD Blue. With the volume up, Gosnell almost immediately takes on an different hue, breaking all the rules laid down by such idioms, and venturing immediately across the lines that society puts down to protect its evasions and hypocrisies from public scrutiny.
Starring Dean Cain, Gosnell dramatises Irish husband-and-wife team Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer’s tremendous investigative book, Gosnell (2017). The screenplay was written by Daily Wire podcast host Andrew Klavan. McElhinney and McAleer also produced Gosnell, and became convinced pro-lifers as a result of making it, just like many of the investigators, officials and jurors involved in bringing Gosnell’s trail of murder to an end. The movie amounts to a slow subversion of the cultural norms that have delivered us the killing chambers of abortion.
Watching Gosnell, you can see why the Philadelphia authorities were so nervous about putting Gosnell on trial. The specific nature of his crimes refused to be ring-fenced behind a line of pseudo-legality. He was too blatant for that, too convinced in his own self-righteousness. The trial process teased out not just the technical illegality that was Gosnell’s stock-in-trade, but also the underlying incoherence of the pseudo-morality that sustained his abominable practice.
Unlike the heavily-ideologised public square in which the nature of abortion has become buried under layers of euphemism and lies, the Pennsylvania courtroom enabled a searchlight to seek out the dark corners of the matter. Witnesses were obliged to tell the truth under oath and the scrutiny of reason, so that even those who had under different headings been activists, lobbyists, pundits and ideologues were obliged to answer direct questions.
Appropriately for such a moral quagmire, by the movie’s telling it was Gosnell’s lawyer Jack McMahon, who did the most effective job in teasing out the cultural hypocrisies. One tableau depicts McMahon’s cross-examination of an expert witness — herself an abortionist who has conducted some 30,000 abortions — at first smugly outlining the distinctions between ‘safe’ abortion and what Gosnell was doing. She had never had a live birth, she says, because ‘we listen to the sonogram to ensure that the foetal heart has stopped’.
What if she made a mistake?
McMahon insisted, penetrating like an antibiotic to the heart of the infection: ‘What would you do if the baby was out and it was breathing?’
Then, she replied, they would extend ‘comfort care’, in other words keep the baby warm.
‘It will eventually pass,’ she added with confidence.
‘Eventually, it would pass,’ McMahon repeated, as though trying to translate the phrase for himself.
‘So basically,’ he mused, ‘you’d let it die.’
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer premieres in Los Angeles on October 9 and opens in 750 theatres around America the following Friday.
John Waters is a writer and commentator based in Ireland and the author of ten books. His latest, Give Us Back the Bad Roads, will be published in mid-October.