Fake news! The words bring to mind epic distortions and outsized emphasis on trivial events like Melania’s wardrobe or Presidential statements about crowd size. The most devastating aspect of “fake news,” however, is the media’s ability to make a story completely disappear. Exhibit one is the “untold story” of Kermit Gosnell, described by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer as “America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer.”
The movie, largely extracted from their 2017 book, premiered to nationwide audiences on Friday -- but only after overcoming huge legal and industry hurdles. Funding for the project was accomplished via nearly thirty-thousand individuals who contributed over 2.3 million dollars to a fund-raising site. Advertising, however, was difficult, as many outlets, including Facebook and NPR, to say nothing of the film industry, created obstacles that reduced public exposure to the project.
The film itself is riveting with a plot that moves along briskly and focuses primarily (a la Law and Order) on the trial of Dr. Gosnell. Shock and awe isn’t the method used to communicate this appalling, many-tiered story. Direct exposure to gore is rejected while still presenting indirectly the horror of Gosnell’s Philadelphia abortion clinic and illegal drug dispensary.
The reluctance to hold this and presumably any abortion clinic responsible for violations of the law (including obvious health code violations) is made clear by the grand jury testimony of a stodgy health inspectress who ignored a stack of complaints about Gosnell’s facility on Governor Tom Ridge’s politically-motivated orders. Both the Philadelphia D.A. (portrayed capably by Michael Beach) and a preliminary judge were also adamant that Gosnell’s case not be about abortion per se.
The trial, however, inevitably confronted the jury with the reality of abortion -- a reality ironically presented by Gosnell’s defense attorney in his questioning of a respected doctor from a prestigious hospital who said, somewhat reluctantly, that the institution had performed about 30,000 abortions. Thanks to the media’s virtual blackout on this topic, most Americans don’t know that for decades more than a million abortions were performed annually in the U.S., and today the honest figure (not the CDC reported figure) stands near 900,000.
Beyond the number of abortions performed, Gosnell’s attorney (played with villainous verisimilitude by Nick Searcy) skillfully led the stylishly clad physician through the D&E (dilation and extraction) procedure, brandishing huge forceps, scissors, and the long, poison-containing needle routinely employed in a legal abortion. Counsel methodically pointed each instrument at the designated “targets” via a black and white representation of a baby in the womb. His point was that there’s precious little difference between what Gosnell usually did in his ramshackle clinic and what well-equipped abortion-providers do. The climax of his cross examination occurred when he asked the physician what would happen if, despite all their efforts, the baby came out alive. Her chilling answer was that the baby would be given “comfort care” -- i.e. placed in a tray and kept warm till it died. Gosnell’s attorney commented that snipping the spinal cord (something Gosnell did several and probably hundreds of times) seemed like a more humane procedure -- “withdrawn.”
The jury also saw, as the movie audience didn’t, a picture of “Baby A” whose spine was snipped by Gosnell, one of the three babies judged to have been born alive and murdered by the doctor. The way the jury members recoiled and averted their eyes provided a dramatic representation of the way media and the public in general wishes to avoid looking at the reality of this “procedure” that is mendaciously placed under the benign rubric of “reproductive health.”
Kudos should be given to Earl Billings for his deft portrayal of Gosnell, a man who calmly greeted police and FBI agents at his home, played Chopin on the piano while agents searched the premises, and expressed concern for the turtles in his filthy clinic while he was being held over for trial. As I noted in my review of McElhinney and McAleer’s book, “Not since Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann has there been a more provocative analysis of evil.” Gosnell’s “greed and macabre callousness” existed alongside a “cheerful disposition that accompanied various acts of charity.” In his overly self-confidant mind, he was simply taking a legally protected procedure a few steps further. Gosnell justified his criminal acts with a dubious claim of good intentions.
The heroic protagonists of the film are Assistant District Attorney Christine Wechsler and Detective James “Woody” Wood (portrayed by Sarah Jane Morris and Dean Cain) two persons who are appalled by Gosnell’s macabre collection of infant’s feet, aborted babies, and refrigerated milk carton containers filled with fetal remains. Their clearly communicated shock and disbelief allows the audience to see second hand what isn’t and probably shouldn’t be shown on screen. The institutional obstacles these two individuals must overcome to convict a mass murderer of three homicides is indicative of the willful blindness that’s baked into contemporary American society.
Nowhere is that blindness more apparent than in a media that refuses to publicize atrocities that might actually open eyes to the reality of abortion-on-demand. The Philadelphia D.A. is convinced that the Gosnell case will become a circus with journalists portraying the prosecution as anti-choice, anti-woman, and racist. What happens instead is an empty courtroom and media silence. Toward the end of the trial, thanks to the efforts of a blogger-journalist, the film shows a packed courtroom. That image, however, is misleading, since trial coverage was largely confined to Philadelphia. Today, the gruesome story of Kermit Gosnell is still largely untold.