I went to see Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer because I thought I ought to. I hadn’t read any reviews of the movie—there are hardly any—so I thought it was going to be a low-budget documentary, well-intentioned but looking as though the money (crowdfunded) had run out or never existed. I dreaded abortion-clinic carnage: bloody images of aborted fetuses that some pro-life groups plaster onto their picketing posters. I was already familiar with Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion provider convicted in 2013 of multiple first-degree murders—among other crimes—for butchering moving, breathing, and sometimes crying close-to-full-term babies born alive at his unsanitary clinic, which catered to poor minority women. (A grand jury report numbered the alleged infanticides in the “hundreds,” although Gosnell was only charged with a handful of them, partly because he had apparently destroyed most of his files.) A mainstream media blackout obscured the trial in 2013 (just a “local crime” story, sniffed a Washington Post reporter), and a mainstream media blackout has obscured the release of the movie today—unless you count snark from Slate as mainstream media.
No movie theater in Washington, D.C., where I live, is showing Gosnell, so I had to travel 10 miles to a multiplex in Silver Spring, Maryland. At 4:30 in the afternoon, I was the only person in the theater. The movie has done pretty well on word-of-mouth, though, achieving No. 10 status on its opening weekend and garnering $2.7 million to date—enough to cover its $2.3 million budget. But it’s fading fast. The film has already vanished from the theater in Silver Spring, but if you are willing to drive to distant D.C.-area suburbia, you can still catch it in a few venues.
To my surprise (this is how ignorant the media blackout had rendered me) and contra Slate, there was almost no gore. The audience is spared having to see the insides of the bags, gallon jugs, and orange-juice cartons filled with fetal remains that Gosnell stored in the clinic refrigerator. We also don’t see photos of the tiny victims of Gosnell’s preferred abortion technique, which was to induce labor (often well into the third trimester of pregnancy (a violation of Pennsylvania’s 24-week abortion limit), wait for the mother to expel the sometimes-breathing baby, and then snip its spinal cord at the back of the neck. Furthermore, Gosnell turned out to be not an amateurishly spliced documentary at all, but an expertly rendered (and only slightly-fictionalized) true-crime drama reminiscent of The Verdict, Sidney Lumet’s much-praised 1982 legal drama about an underdog alcoholic lawyer who bucks a well-financed legal, political, and Catholic Church establishment in order to fight for a female client badly injured by a Catholic hospital’s medical malpractice.
Gosnell doesn’t have The Verdict’s A-list cast headed by Paul Newman, nor does it have David Mamet at the helm as screenwriter, but it does have veteran novelist and current conservative commentator Andrew Klavan as screenplay writer and Nick Searcy, a longtime character actor who starred in the Emmy-winning Justified television series, as director. And it tells a Verdict-like tale: Assistant District Attorney Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris), a sort-of Catholic who is essentially pro-choice despite having five children, has the grim task of trying to secure Gosnell’s conviction in an aggressively liberal political milieu, where her career will be ruined if she fails. (One reason Gosnell got away with what he did was that Pennsylvania health authorities fearful of stepping on abortion advocates’ toes hadn’t inspected his clinic or any other abortion facility in the state since 1992.) “You’ll be the prosecutor who went after reproductive rights,” Lexy’s boss warns her.
The acting is superlative, right down to the smallest parts played by young actresses in the roles of Gosnell’s untrained staffers (one was only 15 years old), whom he hired out of Philadelphia ghettos to administer anesthetics, cope with nonfunctioning machines and expired medicines in his “delivery” rooms, and—at times—even cut spinal cords. It’s hard to decide who delivers the best acting performance, but near the top is Earl Billings as Gosnell himself. Billings has managed to transform himself into Kermit Gosnell’s spitting image: a bizarre but believable combination of perverse brilliance (he plays Chopin on the piano while police search his home), opaque imperturbability, and a talent for playing the reproductive-rights victim and martyr (he insists he cuts corners only to serve poor women). He is topped only by Searcy himself as Gosnell’s stinging, nimble-witted defense lawyer, called Mike Cohan in the movie and modeled after Kermit Gosnell’s real-life lawyer, Jack McMahon. As Cohan, Searcy embodies what Keats called “negative capability”—why we find ourselves rooting for Satan in Paradise Lost—and I relished every moment in the movie in which Cohan rips a prosecution witness to shreds on cross.
“This case is not about abortion” is the mantra that the Gosnell prosecution team chants over and over—as it must, to a pro-choice jury in a post-Roe vs. Wade legal world. But in fact the movie is about abortion, starting with the peculiarity of personality that would lead someone to choose deliberate destruction of nascent human life as a profession. Kermit Gosnell’s charnel house was just an endpoint in the murky half-world of free-standing abortion clinics, especially late-term abortion clinics, a half-world at which pro-choice liberals would rather not peer closely.
The most chilling scene in Gosnell involves defense-attorney Cohan’s masterly cross-examination of a “good” abortion doctor: the elegantly attired Dr. North (Janine Turner), who runs a squeaky-clean clinic and whom Lexy calls to the stand to demonstrate the high standards of care that presumably prevail in her industry. After Dr. North breezes through her testimony about the 30,000-plus “good” abortions she has performed, Cohan starts grilling her about how, exactly, she carries out those procedures when the fetus is getting up toward the Pennsylvania 24-week legal limit. He unfurls a chart showing how big a fetus is at the late second-trimester stage and what it looks like (hint: it looks like a baby). Dr. North says one of the first steps she performs is to…pierce the spinal cord at the back of the neck. Pretty much like Dr. Gosnell, except the fetus is still technically unborn, so the aim of the procedure—as the increasingly rattled Dr. North explains—is to collapse the skull after draining out its brain contents and pull it out of the uterus along with other fetal body parts via giant saw-toothed forceps (Cohan has a pair of those on hand in the courtroom, too). Occasionally, the fetus slips through the birth canal before it can be dismembered. Then, says Dr. North, her clinic gives it “comfort care” until it “passes.” By the end of all of this, you are wondering what, precisely, the difference is between a perfectly legal standard-issue second-trimester abortion and murder. Of course, that is the point of Cohan’s cross-examination strategy.
It is also the point of Gosnell. It is the reason why several people tied to the movie’s production, along with many who have seen it, have reported switching from pro-choice to pro-life. It is why audience members (including me) started crying more than once as we watched. And it is certainly why the pro-choice media and entertainment industry seem to have conspired to make certain that as few people as possible ever see it.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.