Every Halloween a spate of scary movies hits movie theaters and streaming sites. This year is no different, with films like Halloween and Suspiria, and shows like The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix), creeping out audiences everywhere. But the most horrifying film this fall doesn’t feature ghosts or masked killers. It’s a slasher film about a bogeyman of a different, more disturbing sort—a killer whose crimes went undetected for decades because they occurred under the guise of “health care” and “reproductive rights.”
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer tells the ghoulish story of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, who in 2013 was convicted of first-degree murder for killing babies in his abortion clinic after they had been born alive, as well as for a patient, Karnamaya Mongar, who died after a botched abortion in Gosnell’s clinic. The movie, which draws largely from court transcripts, is unmistakably a horror film. The villain (played by Earl Billings) operates a “women’s health” clinic that is more like a house of horrors, complete with baby feet in jars, urine- and cat-feces-splattered walls, bloody used instruments, and undisposed medical waste. His weapon of choice is scissors, which he uses to sever the spinal cords of babies after they emerge alive from their mother’s womb. The body count is massive. When investigators (including Dean Cain as a Philadelphia policeman) raid Gosnell’s house, he calmly plays Chopin on his piano, channeling Hannibal Lecter.
[This film] is a horrifying mirror to a society that has normalized and systematized the killing of babies.
Ultimately Gosnell is a horrifying mirror to a society that has normalized and systematized the killing of babies. It is horrifying because it is not just the tale of an isolated psychopath like Jeffrey Dahmer or the Zodiac killer. Gosnell’s heinous, murderous practices put him in prison for life because he “crossed a line” (performing abortions after the legal limit of 24 weeks, killing babies born alive). But are the realities on the other side of that line any less horrifying?
Another horrifying aspect of the Gosnell story is how apathetic so many seem to be toward the story and the larger questions it raises about the abortion industry. The mainstream media was famously absent at Gosnell’s trial—until Kirsten Powers called out the “disgrace” of the press in a USA Today column, insisting the Gosnell story “should be front page news.”
The same is true for the press coverage of the movie. Aside from conservative and pro-life websites, few outlets seem interested in a film that cracked the box office top 10 when it opened on October 12. At the time of writing, only 10 reviews of the film are logged on Rottentomatoes.com, compared with 186 for Bad Times at the El Royale, which released the same day. And despite performing well its opening week—I saw the film in a packed Southern California theater—theaters have reportedly been dropping Gosnell from their screens in its second week, inexplicably. Gosnell’s producers had trouble even paying media to run ads for the film. NPR reportedly rejected an ad for the film unless the term “abortionist Kermit Gosnell” was changed to “doctor Kermit Gosnell.”
Why are the media so afraid of covering this film or telling this story? It’s the same reason so many Pennsylvania doctors, politicians, and bureaucrats looked the other way for decades rather than exposing Gosnell’s practices. To spotlight Gosnell would necessarily spotlight abortion and all it involves: suction, dismembered babies, and so forth. To report on what happens in “crossing the line” cases like Gosnell involves making people aware of the line and what is actually legal. And what is legal is horrifying. Keeping people ignorant of the whole enterprise is the only hope abortion proponents have. “Move along,” they say of something like Gosnell. “There’s nothing to see here.”
To report on what happens in ‘crossing the line’ cases like Gosnell involves making people aware of the line and what is actually legal. And what is legal is horrifying.
A journalist character in the film named Molly Mullaney (inspired in part by Mollie Hemingway) exposes this media bias by tweeting a photo of empty press seats in the courtroom during Gosnell’s trial. Late in the film the character (played by Cyrina Fiallo) says what too few journalists seem to believe anymore: “If the truth doesn’t match what I believe, it’s still the truth.” Indeed. In this era of “fake news” and rampant social media confirmation bias, we desperately need more journalists committed to truth above all, even when it doesn’t match their personal convictions or cause.
Part of why some journalists have shrugged at Gosnell—though it is by no means the whole story—is that it is a mediocre movie that largely preaches to a pro-life choir.
Which is too bad. The raw materials of the story are compelling and damning in their own right. They need no spin. In the hands of a stridently objective documentary filmmaker (admittedly a rarer-than-ever breed), the story of Kermit Gosnell could have resulted in a more nuanced, artful, widely seen film—one that left-leaning journalists could not have ignored.
As it is, Gosnell is not the sort of film critics, arthouse audiences, or casual blue-state filmgoers are likely to watch. Essentially made-for-TV quality (at times it feels like a cheesy episode of CSI) with flourishes of Dinesh D’Souza partisanship, the movie—released conveniently in time for the U.S. midterm elections—is largely red meat for the already convinced.
Produced by journalists Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney (based on their bestselling book) and directed by Nick Searcy, Gosnell was audience-funded in Indiegogo’s most successful crowdfunding campaign ever. This partially explains the film’s populist, partisan energy. Just getting the film made and exhibited feels like a win for the pro-life cause. But shouldn’t efforts like this be designed to win over the unconvinced? Done differently, might Gosnell have been more than a partisan rallying cry?
Shouldn’t efforts like this be designed to win over the unconvinced? Done differently, might Gosnell have been more than a partisan rallying cry?
Gosnell is more political than religious in its anti-abortion stance. Nowhere is there mention of the imago Dei or other theologies of the sanctity of life. But the film does relish opportunities to skewer the political left and point out its hypocrisy. In one scene we see a judge order the protection of Gosnell’s pet turtles, saying, “I take the Endangered Species Act very seriously.” The film wants to point out the cognitive dissonance in those who are passionate about animal welfare but apathetic about fetus welfare. It hammers this home by repeatedly showing Gosnell tenderly feeding and talking to his turtles, when he’s not severing baby necks. But is this really necessary? Does the pro-life cause need to pit itself against the pro-environment cause, further entrenching partisan binaries (either you protect the environment or you protect babies, but not both)?
The film also missteps in depicting Gosnell as basically psychotic. By underscoring his bizarre behavior and squalid environments (messy office, flea-ridden home), the film gives ammo to those who would write off the story as that of a lunatic outlier. As I watched the film I thought of Operation Finale and its depiction of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. That film showed Eichmann to be chillingly rational, sane, and part of a bigger system where evil flourished. By emphasizing Gosnell’s unhinged, unkempt behavior (in contrast to more “professional” abortion doctors), Gosnell creates distance between this particular man’s evil and the bigger evil system that makes him possible.
This is not to say Gosnell totally misses the connection. In one of the film’s shrewdest scenes, we see Gosnell’s defense attorney (played by Searcy) cross-examine another abortion doctor (based on the real courtroom testimony of ob-gyn Karen Feisullin). She is a professional, seemingly nice woman who defends the legal, sanitary, and “safe” abortions she performs (more than 30,000 in her career). But as the lawyer probes and gets this “nice” abortion doctor to describe in gruesome detail the dilation and evacuation abortion method, and what she does in the event an infant is born alive (she provides “comfort care,” essentially letting the baby lay unaided “until it passes”), the ugliness of legal/acceptable abortion is exposed.
More and Better Films
Indeed, what is legal and acceptable in our society is the true horror we must confront. Gosnell is an admirable attempt to challenge us to confront abortion’s horror head on, but we need more—and better—films about this subject. We need a sprawling, nuanced documentary, along the lines of Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour O.J.: Made in America, that considers the history, politics, theology, and human realities of abortion. Is there a filmmaker out there—Christian or otherwise—willing to make such a film?
Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, “The role of the artist is to not look away,” and with difficult and controversial topics like abortion we especially need artists to play this role. We need for abortion what Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (25 years old this year) was for the Holocaust—a beautifully made, not-look-away reminder of what we might be tempted to forget.
Akira Kurosawa once said, ‘The role of the artist is to not look away,’ and with difficult and controversial topics like abortion we especially need artists to play this role.
The visceral power of cinema (where cameras zoom in and microphones record reality in uniquely confrontational ways) is well-suited for the task of revealing what might otherwise be hidden or obscured. And abortion is something many people and institutions want to keep hidden and obscured.
The PG-13 Gosnell plays it somewhat safe in terms of revealing the actual realities of abortion (though it cleverly employs the “reaction shot” to communicate the horror of an unseen photograph of “Baby Boy A”), but the horrors of abortion demand to be exposed in more direct, hard-to-watch fashion.
When a prosecutor in the film asks a nurse why she took a picture on her cell phone of “Baby Boy A” (who was briefly alive after being taken from the womb), she says:
He was so big. He looked like he could be somebody’s little brother. I just thought there should be a picture of him. To show the world that he was here for a little while.
Yes, there should be a picture of him—and the millions more like him who were only here “for a little while.” They were fearfully and wonderfully made. They bear the image of God. Each and every one. Heaven help us if we shrug at their destruction.