John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 boys and young men in Chicago. Ted Bundy confessed to having killed at least 30 women — some of whom he decapitated — across various U.S. states. Patrick Wayne Kearney confessed to over 30 murders and was convicted of 21 counts of killing homosexual men and dumping their bodies along California highways.
But two journalists overlooked these and other mass murderers of U.S. lore, instead conferring the title of America’s biggest serial killer on an unlikely candidate: Kermit Gosnell. In their new book, Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer, husband-and-wife duo Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer chronicle the successful 2011 case against the former abortionist, who was charged with several counts of murder, performing illegal late-term abortions, and peddling prescription drugs.
In a blunt, sometimes choppy writing style — likely the result of their background as documentarians — the authors compile the essential facts of the case, chronicling its events from their origin in a prescription-drug bust to the jail cell where Gosnell currently sits. One can forgive the book’s occasional clunky phrasing and unwieldy prose because it conveys the case’s copious, intricate details with clarity, and those facts don’t demand flashy or dramatic rhetorical flourishes — they speak for themselves. The book doesn’t flinch from describing the whole truth and as a result often veers into the morbid and grotesque, as one might expect given the gruesome nature of the case.
Though Gosnell first became a suspect for prescription-drug trafficking, the case eventually evolved into a homicide investigation after authorities learned of his role in the early death of a Bhutanese woman. Our first encounter with Gosnell’s abattoir takes place through the eyes of local and federal narcotics investigators who set foot inside the mazelike clinic only to be “assaulted with the rank odor of cat feces, formaldehyde, and human urine.” The odor was the least of the clinic’s maladies:
Unlicensed workers were treating patients. Decomposing medical waste made employees ill. . . . One of the cats Gosnell kept in the building had died from a flea infestation. The equipment was old and in most cases did not work. And then she told them about an Asian woman named Karnamaya Mongar who had died in the clinic the previous November. According to [the worker], her death “just wasn’t right.”
The authors unabashedly depict the horrific scene, which continued to deteriorate the more the authorities explored. Everything was covered in cat hair. The waiting room featured a dirty fish tank that housed illegal sea turtles. The surgical-procedure rooms were unsanitary. Medical equipment was unsterilized and rusty. The emergency exit was blocked by broken furniture and padlocked with a lock to which no one had a key. Women sat on dirty recliners, covered with bloodstained blankets. Investigators found five jars containing the severed feet of babies; according to later testimony, Gosnell at one point had saved at least 20 jars identical to these for no apparent purpose. By the end of their search, authorities had turned up the fetal remains of 47 babies, stored throughout the clinic in freezers, empty water and milk jugs, cat-food containers, and Minute Maid juice bottles.
The book describes the many shady characters working at the clinic, all of whom were interviewed by investigators with varying degrees of success. They admitted that Gosnell routinely modified ultrasounds to make fetuses appear younger in order to cover up illegal late-term abortions. He ignored the mandatory 24-hour waiting period for counseling, often insisting that he must perform same-day procedures. He forcibly performed abortions on unwilling minors brought to the clinic by their mothers, and sometimes required his employees to restrain or sedate unwilling women.
Out of material greed — which inspired his lucrative illegal-prescription business — Gosnell refused to dedicate the requisite resources to performing standard abortion procedures. Because of his cheap, altered methods, there was a much higher chance that babies would be born alive. And they often were. In these cases, Gosnell would cut the back of each baby’s neck with scissors to sever its spine, a practice that the grand jury concluded had likely taken place hundreds of times over his decades of work. Women routinely delivered their babies alive into toilets, where clinic workers killed them; the clinic’s toilets and sinks were backed up with fetal remains.
And Gosnell harmed more than just these unborn babies. Forty years ago, he and a fellow abortionist injured nine women with an experimental abortion method. Samika Shaw died at the local hospital after undergoing a shoddy abortion procedure at Gosnell’s clinic. Several women suffered serious health problems after botched abortions at his hands. And Mongar lost her life after unlicensed clinic workers gave her untold doses of sedatives at Gosnell’s direction, and his inaction when her heart began to fail during the abortion procedure sealed her fate.
Surely Gosnell’s use of scissors was cruel, his treatment of women callous, his severing of infant feet downright sinister, but at bottom, his accomplished goal was no different from the goal of any abortion procedure.
Throughout the book, the authors hammer home the theme of the banality of this evil: Gosnell’s demeanor was consistently tranquil and pleasant. During a search of his home, officers heard music and discovered the abortionist calmly playing Chopin on his piano. According to an employee, he once said, describing a born-alive baby he had killed and placed in a shoebox, “The baby is big enough that it could walk to the store, walk me to the bus stop.” And when he was arrested, Gosnell said with a smirk, “So this is what happens when you try to help people.”
The authors detail their exclusive interview with Gosnell, during which he fervently maintained his innocence. In his mind, what he did was no different from the work of any abortionist: He disposed of unwanted babies. His barbaric method was the only distinction, the only reason that the law and the public balked. It is understandable that Gosnell might be confused about being confined to prison for life. Surely his use of scissors was cruel, his treatment of women callous, his severing of infant feet downright sinister, but at bottom, his accomplished goal was no different from the goal of any abortion procedure.
In fact, Gosnell’s legal team defended him by describing abortion as a violent and disgusting business, arguing that his practices were well within industry norms. His clinic surely didn’t meet the industry standard, but the defense team was largely correct: All abortion is bloody and disgusting and murderous, whether or not the child is stabbed in the neck with scissors. It is, in a sense, hypocritical to charge Gosnell with murder, to insist that what he did to these born-alive babies was illegal, while at the same time sanctioning the equally violent abortions performed on unborn children every day.
The clinic at 3801 Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia is closed now, and as the authors can attest, Gosnell is safe behind bars for life. And yet abortion still goes on. It’s properly medicated and sanitized killing, to be sure, with no blood on the floor and no babies in shoeboxes or toilets. But those children end up dead all the same. In the end, all abortion is this horrific clinic and maimed fetal remains. Gosnell’s conviction in Philadelphia shines a light on the disturbingly hypocritical abortion industry and the willful ignorance of those who support abortion rights. It reminds us, in gut-wrenching detail, that every abortion ends a human life, whether inside the womb or just born, whether by stabbing it with scissors or by injecting poison into its heart before dismembering it. In this compelling tell-all book, and in America’s thriving abortion industry, the horror of Gosnell’s slaughterhouse lives on.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.