‘You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” These words were spoken by English politician William Wilberforce on the floor of the House of Commons in 1791, as he argued for the abolition of the slave trade.
Wilberforce’s words apply just as well to today’s abortion debate, shrouded as it is in evasion and euphemism. We talk about reproductive rights, the right to life, women’s bodily autonomy. Polite people don’t talk about what happens in an abortion procedure. Most people don’t even know.
The new movie Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer shatters the illusion. The film tells the true story of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, currently in prison for life without parole for third-degree murder of infants born alive and killed inside his hazardous abortion clinic at 3801 Lancaster Ave.
A viewer who supports abortion rights could watch Gosnell and still support abortion rights at the end. The film won’t on its own make people pro-life. But no one could watch this movie and come away with any illusions about what abortion is. No euphemism can erase the reality of what Gosnell depicts.
This is not your typical pro-life movie. There’s no heart-warming storyline about a challenging but ultimately successful adoption. There’s no nervous single mother who sees an ultrasound and decides to leave the abortion clinic and raise her child against all odds. There is just horror, plain and simple.
And yet it’s the most powerful kind of anti-abortion movie that could ever be made, because every minute of it portrays a sickeningly true story. Gosnell was produced by husband-and-wife duo Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, Irish filmmakers who published a book about Gosnell’s story in January of last year. As a result of their expertise in the case, the film is remarkably true to life, with the vast majority of the screenplay pulled verbatim from the grand-jury testimony and Gosnell’s actual trial.
It’s a chilling story, depicting the process by which local law-enforcement officers discovered Gosnell’s abortion clinic in the course of investigating illegal drug trafficking and stumbled into the biggest prosecution of an abortionist in U.S. history.
The film does not shy away from portraying the gory reality of Gosnell’s clinic. In the worst of it, we are treated to visuals of severed feet from aborted babies stored in jars in the freezer and bags of “medical waste” containing fetal remains, as well as a glimpse of intact, late-stage aborted fetuses recovered from the clinic and lined up on an autopsy table for further examination.
Clinic workers give investigators even more gruesome accounts. One admits during an interview that the abortionist taught his staff to snip the necks of babies born alive in botched, illegal late-term abortion procedures, using scissors to end their lives.
None of the investigators are portrayed as being anti-abortion activists — in fact, quite the opposite. Early on, Detective James Woods (played convincingly by Dean Cain, who said in a recent interview that he himself is pro-choice) describes the clinic in sordid detail and laments the death of Karnamaya Mongar, who perished after a botched abortion at Gosnell’s house of horrors.
“I thought you were pro-choice,” District Attorney Dan Molinari replies. “What does that have to do with anything?” Woods asks. “It complicates things,” Molinari says.
And he’s right; it changes everything. The judge granting permission to pursue the case against Gosnell strictly warns the district attorney’s office not to question abortion rights in any way. The state health inspector admits that Gosnell wasn’t subject to a single review in more than 15 years, despite receiving complaints, because the Pennsylvania governor’s office had explicitly exempted abortion clinics from scrutiny. And when it comes time to try the case in court, not a single journalist shows up to cover it.
Row after row of benches are shown empty, labeled with signs: “This row reserved for press with identification.” This, too, is perfectly true to reality. Those of us who followed the case at the time remember well the media blackout surrounding it. Had Gosnell been butchering adults instead of newborn infants, he’d be the most notorious serial killer in U.S. history.
Gosnell is a pro-life movie not because the abortionist ends up in jail — although he does. It’s pro-life because it unflinchingly exposes the fact that all abortion necessarily involves the death of a human being. In his effort to get Gosnell off the hook, the defense attorney cross-examines another abortionist, who testifies that she, unlike Gosnell, would never snip a living infant’s spine, never allow unlicensed staff members to administer anesthesia, never let a woman die on a table in her clinic. She’s a good abortionist.
She says she has performed more than 30,000 abortions, many of them in the second trimester. The defense attorney slowly walks her through the procedure used to legally terminate those pregnancies. He shows a sonogram of a 23-week-old fetus, has the abortionist explain just where she’d inject a needle to stop its heartbeat. He has her explain how she evacuates the brains of the fetus in the womb to allow for its removal, how she’d use scissors to aid in the process. And what would she do, he asks, if a fetus happened accidentally to be delivered alive?
The abortionist hesitates only a moment before saying she’d provide “comfort care,” which she describes as keeping the fetus warm and comfortable. “Eventually it will pass,” she adds.
“So basically you’d let it die?” The defense attorney finishes the thought for her. “Seems like it’d be more humane to just take a pair of scissors. …” He trails off and grins; he’s made his point. How can Gosnell be punished for doing what every abortionist does? They all ensure that unwanted fetuses are killed. The means by which they do so is a secondary concern.
The film’s most powerful moment comes near the end, when the prosecutor shows the jury a photo that one clinic worker took of a baby who was born alive and killed by Gosnell. The camera pans across the twelve-person jury, studying their faces as, one by one, they stare at the image, and, one by one, they look away, glance down, or close their eyes. They have now seen abortion. And they can never say again that they did not know.
Neither can anyone who sees this movie.