By: Alex Chediak – stream.org – October 16, 2018
The film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Greatest Serial Killer opened Friday in 650 theaters. But it was largely ignored by the entertainment media. Much like the actual Gosnell trial was largely ignored by the news media. Until it could not be ignored.
It’s Not About Abortion
The Gosnell story is deeply unsettling, and not just because it deals with the unsavory subject of abortion. The movie makes clear that the District Attorney office, in prosecuting Gosnell, was not seeking to litigate or further restrict abortion. Assistant District Attorney Alexis McGuire, played by Sarah Jane Morris, is a pro-choice mother of five. But McGuire comes to realize that “there is nothing that man did illegally for 30 years that protects women or children. And you don’t have to be a pro-life activist to see that.”
This would become a major theme in the movie: It’s not about abortion. It’s about the flagrant disregard for the health and safety of women. It’s about a doctor committing scores of illegal late-term abortions in extremely unsanitary and unsafe conditions. It’s about a doctor regularly using scissors to snip the necks of babies who survived botched abortions. It’s about untrained staff administering anesthesia to pregnant women, and even snipping babies’ necks, at the direction of Dr. Gosnell. It’s about an immigrant woman’s death on the premises that went ignored. It’s about regulators who failed to inspect abortion facilities, even when they received multiple reports of serious public health violations.
How Dr. Gosnell Was Portrayed
Earl Billings does a great job portraying Kermit Gosnell as compliant and pleasant, but also arrogantly confident in his methods. On the one hand, “The Good Doctor” (as he was known in West Philadelphia for many years) is a man at peace with his work and his status in the community. He’s kind and polite to the FBI, DEA, and police. In a memorable scene, while his home is being raided, Gosnell sits relaxed in his living room playing classical music on his piano. (There’s actual footage from the police department showing this did happen.)
On the other hand, Gosnell’s arrogance is shown in a meeting with his legal team. Gosnell rejects a plea bargain deal. That would involve an admission of guilt. Gosnell admits that he has no regard for laws governing the licensing and training of medical personnel. At the time, Pennsylvania law prohibited abortions after 24 weeks. Gosnell admits that he puts “24 weeks” on his paperwork regardless of the pregnancy’s duration. He figures it’s his right, as the doctor, to make such a declaration. He doesn’t even try to use medical means to determine the time of gestation. Reflecting, Gosnell says, “These laws … are erected by the enemies of abortion … to create barriers between women and my services. … These poor women who need me, have nowhere else to go.”
How the Gosnell Trial Was Portrayed
Gosnell hires a top lawyer, Mike Cohen, played by Nick Searcy, who doubled as the Director of Gosnell. Searcy carefully includes the strongest arguments in defense of Gosnell’s medical practice. In one stunning speech, Cohen tells the jury that zealous Catholicism and racism are behind the attempts to prosecute Gosnell. Cohen refers to Gosnell as a man who has “done nothing but serve the citizens of West Philadelphia for decades” in a poor neighborhood that the police would rather avoid.
As Megan Basham points out, a powerful argument that Cohen makes at the trial is that Gosnell’s methods may be crude, but they’re really no different than those of other abortion providers. Yes, it’s illegal to deliver a baby alive and then snip its neck. But had Gosnell emptied the brains of the baby before delivering it, his actions might have been legal.
At one point the prosecution calls to the witness stand a legal abortion provider. The witness claims she’s never performed a late-term abortion or delivered a live baby due to a botched abortion. In cross-examination, Cohen forces her to admit that if she were to deliver a live baby by accident, she would just comfort the baby as it died. Cohen points out to the jury that Gosnell does forcefully what this other abortion provider would do passively. What’s the difference?
Not Mere Propaganda
Though arguments comprise a good chunk of the movie, the pro-life message is understated. Viewers are left to ponder that question for themselves. Though the movie receives a PG-13 rating, there’s far less in the way of graphic images of body parts and dead fetuses than I was expecting. At a bracing moment in the trial, the prosecution shows the live-born fetus of “Baby Boy A.” The picture is shown slowly to each member of the Grand Jury. But it is not shown to the movie’s viewers! This lack of graphic imagery engages the minds of the viewers. It doesn’t just pull at the strings of their hearts.
Gosnell may be an independent low-budget film without an A-list cast. But it succeeds in portraying what happened and why it matters. Go see it and tell your friends about it.
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