‘Tick. Tick. Tick.” Crime-scene officer Bobby Flade was in the basement of Kermit Gosnell’s house. The sound was “coming from below.”
“He looked down,” Steve Volk, a reporter for Philadelphia magazine, writes in the new e-book Gosnell’s Babies: Inside the Mind of America’s Most Notorious Abortion Doctor, “and for what felt like long seconds, he tried to process what he was seeing. The very bottom of his Tyvek suit, around the cuffs of his ankles, had turned black. And the blackness advanced, slowly, up his legs.”
They were fleas, “Roiling in piles up over his shins. Slowly blotting out his suit.”
Officer Flade went back upstairs and found Gosnell, who had been playing Chopin on the piano, “smiling serenely.”
“See?” said Gosnell. “I’m not such a bad guy. I told you there was fleas down there. I didn’t have to tell you.”
That’s Kermit Gosnell. Call it rationalization. Call it denial. Call it evil. But in his mind, there has been an injustice done. He should be a progressive hero, and yet the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Wendy Davis seem not to want to acknowledge his existence. He is being punished “because my standards are those of sophisticated mathematicians,” as Gosnell wrote in one letter to Volk. (Gosnell blames, in part, Catholics and Catholic education for his conviction; he believes there was bias against second-trimester abortion permeating the courtroom because Philadelphia’s district attorney had been an altar boy, and there was a “strong Catholic presence in the homicide division” of the Philadelphia police department.)
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The first journalist Gosnell has talked to since the trial, Volk received twelve letters from Gosnell, 50 e-mails, and a dozen phone calls. At one point Gosnell, “out of left field,” said that he would have to express himself on some matters in verse. In Gosnell’s Babies, it becomes clear why Gosnell never testified on his own behalf, even as he claims innocence to Volk: He’s guilty as charged and has only assertions of righteousness as a warrior for women in a war on poverty to plead in his behalf.
Meanwhile, Gosnell waits for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to return the one copy of his C.V. he had sent after his arrest, hoping for future employment with the foundation. He had asked them to send it back to him, “But I never received anything,” Gosnell told Volk. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my notoriety.” So he is aware of that much, at least. In conversation with Volk, Gosnell laughed; “Given my circumstances, I suppose they aren’t sure what to do with me.”
He’s also waiting on the Clinton Global Initiative, where he applied for a job he saw advertised in The Economist, “working with a global health-care initiative, training young doctors.”
“I think I would be a fitting person,” he told Volk, “to address young people before they begin a global career in medicine.”
That seems oddly consistent with a man who went about feeding his turtles clams even as the police, armed with a warrant, were searching his filthy Philadelphia clinic, believing the place to be the “pill mill” that in fact it was: pain management for the poor and desperate, in Gosnell’s mind. “These are hard economic times,” he explained to Volk. “These people need these pills.” And so: “He seemed unconcerned. He smashed the clams to pieces and started feeding fragments of shell and clam meat through a hatch in the tank,” Volk writes about the scene inside Gosnell’s clinic at 3801 Lancaster. As police looked in drawers — ultimately finding feet and other body parts of dead babies — Gosnell went on to tend to a patient pushing out a stillborn baby, then asked the officers whether they minded if he ate his dinner. “He sat down, pulled a plate of salmon teriyaki from a paper sack, and started to eat with his torn and bloody surgical gloves still covering his hands.”
As for the late-term abortions, he would perform them past the state limit of 23 weeks. Should any clinic worker believe she was not qualified to do what she was doing with patients, or question whether what was being done there was even legal, he would dismiss the concerns, assuring his employee that it was all legal, and saying that the patient, who was in her 25th or 26th week, was actually in her 24th. Why say 24th? Volk was perplexed. If you’re going to lie on a medical chart anyway, why not say 23rd and make it legal? “The law was vague,” Gosnell explained to Volk, “and poorly written. And I took it to mean, and I believe I was justified in doing so, that abortions could continue in the 24th week.”
There’s no actual ambiguity save for the moral one: If law is a teacher, what does a culture learn from a law that permits abortions up to the 23rd week of a pregnancy? What does the law teach us about the dignity of human life?
Gosnell believed that a woman who walked into his clinic had decided she wanted a dead baby and had a right to exactly that. He admits to ignoring waiting periods, which are designed to allow a woman to change her mind. “Access to legalized abortion is a requirement for the educational and fiscal futures of women,” Gosnell told Volk, “and — by extension — the well-being of all the people in their circle of family, friends, neighborhood and society. Access to legalized abortion is necessary in a world where we do not take proper care of all the children we have.”
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Gosnell explained to Volk in detail the “superior” math skills that led him to contradict ultrasound technology and tell his staff that a woman in her 26th week was actually in her 24th, and to assert that doing an abortion in the 24th week was simply fine. “In Gosnell’s mind,” Volk writes, “the law granted him the power to determine a baby’s gestational age not so much through investigation and honest accounting, as simply writing it down.” As for his snipping the spinal cords of babies born alive, Gosnell explained to Volk that once a baby had been injected with Dioxin, he was as good as dead, so spinal-cord snipping wasn’t barbaric. The snipping was actually compassionate, to avoid the child’s feeling pain. Pain? So were the children he was killing outside of the womb alive or dead? Volk pushed him and all he could get was: “It will take me time to articulate my answer.” (This all would have been a hit in the courtroom.) Volk diagnoses Gosnell as “dissembling, searching for some way to align the practices he believed in with the laws as they stand.”
He was doing exactly that. The man described as a monster has stumbled into something here, an exposé moment, a conscience-rocking moment. The grave incoherence of the assault on human dignity that is America under Roe v. Wade is laid bare.
Volk, who was in the courtroom throughout Gosnell’s trial, points to the testimony of prosecution witness Karen Feisullin, a doctor and abortion provider, as having “illuminated the political aspect of the case, and perhaps even revealed something of the benignly smiling Gosnell.” She talked about the mechanics of abortions at various stages, using various techniques. “What is your obligation if in fact a baby is born alive?” she was asked. She explained that this seldom happened, but if it did, she testified, you provided “comfort care.” The image of a baby born alive and left to die, even if swaddled in a blanket, left people visibly disturbed, Volk writes. “The moment seemed to crystallize our abortion angst.”
“Feisullin’s testimony revealed the politics, the hard, societal decisions, at the heart of abortion laws,” Volk explains. It was only because Gosnell pushed the age to 25 and 26 weeks, and because he stabbed the babies with scissors after they had fully emerged from their mothers’ bodies, that he committed homicide. Had he wrapped a blanket around them instead of snipping necks, even at 23 weeks, “he would have faced nothing more than third-degree felony charges, potential seven year sentences,” Volk writes. “The scissors he used because he took them to be ‘more merciful’ are what made him a murderer.’”
For him, for our society, “the difference between being a doctor just doing his job and first degree homicide was, first, a matter of geography: Did he kill the baby in utero, or outside the womb?” Second, it was “a matter of execution: A 5.5.-inch-long pair of surgical scissors, or a blanket and time?”
“The line between legal and illegal has to be drawn somewhere,” Volk writes. “But the political manner in which the lines are drawn and their seemingly arbitrary nature might — to a man like Gosnell . . . — make those lines appear ridiculously easy to cross.”
When Gosnell first looked at the procedure we now know as partial-birth abortion in 1992, he saw, he explains to Volk, “an opportunity for mercy.” This, in his mind, avoided “the silent scream,” where a suction machine locks onto a fetus and its mouth opens.
Gosnell explains to Volk that “I did not choose abortion. Abortions chose me.” He performed his first when he was a resident, and a married couple came to him wanting to get rid of their fourth. Fearing the mother would attempt to abort the child on her own, he “obtained what instruments he could, including a sharp curette up to the task of removing a 10-to-12-week-old fetus from the womb.” Others would follow, including an experiment on Mother’s Day 1972 with a “super coil,” which that dark day would leave nine of 15 women in their second trimesters seriously injured, one requiring a hysterectomy since her womb was damaged beyond repair.
“In abortion,” Volk writes, “Gosnell found a practice that would, for almost four decades, forgive his every trespass. . . . He found his own sense of equilibrium somewhere beyond the law, good sense and decency, making choices we find unfathomable, till the police came. His legacy, as a doctor and a criminal, is to have illuminated the painful realities of war.”
In Volk’s words: “The central mystery — How could he kill those babies? — had an answer . . . They were casualties of that larger war; their blooming and birthing and the suffering they would experience and cause represented a greater harm, a bigger sin, than pruning them away.”
In one of the poems he sent Volk, he wrote:
Who are “throwed.”
At one point early on in their exchanges, Gosnell tells Volk that “there is a lot of background you need to understand. This will take some time.” Volk’s snapshot of what Gosnell was thinking is an important one. The background, the context, is not just biography, but the history of a culture of death.
During the trial, an Associated Press reporter described Gosnell as an “elegant man . . . who smiled softly.” How could he smile? How could he be serene at his piano? How could he eat in the midst of squalor and death? How could he live with himself? Because “his conscience was clear,” Volk concludes. His conscience was formed in a culture of death, after all, where a doctor doing harm has been promoted as a merciful thing.
“I think about George Tiller, who was assassinated in his church, and I am appreciative that I did not meet the same fate.” Gosnell mentioned Tiller to the police the night he was arrested and contended to Volk that they had been friends, though Volk could find no evidence of this. Gosnell might be appreciative that he’s alive, but not that he’s deprived of the same adulation afforded Tiller by the abortion industry and its advocates .
“I’d prefer to start talking about my plans for the future,” Gosnell told Volk in the middle of August. “My life isn’t over,” he says as he works on perfecting his Spanish and doing yoga. Karnamaya Mongar, who died at Gosnell’s hands, doesn’t have the same luxury.
“The monster, it seems, is all too discernibly a man — a man so consumed with human frailties, so flush with an inflated sense of his own righteousness and intelligence, so filled with rationalizations, that he sees his every action, no matter how far outside the bounds of law or propriety, as moral and just.” And the monster didn’t come out of nowhere. He is a product of a culture that claims the death of the innocent unborn is necessary for women’s flourishing. It is a brutal lie, but one that we contribute to when we look away and pretend Gosnell is merely an aberration.
Gosnell considers himself innocent. He is not. Nor are we.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.