The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ignored story of ‘America’s biggest serial killer’

Kermit Gosnell
Kermit Gosnell (Philadelphia Police Department via Philadelphia District Attorney's Office/AP)

A word can be worth a thousand pictures. In the movie “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” the mild word “snip” describes what the camera, demonstrating the eloquence of reticence, does not show in gory detail: Kermit Gosnell’s use of scissors to cut the spinal cords of hundreds of babies that survived his late-term abortion procedures.

Directed by actor Nick Searcy (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water”), this gripping true-crime courtroom drama, with dialogue taken from court transcripts and police records, made it onto 670 screens, and earned nearly $4 million, and soon will be available in DVD format through Netflix. This, in spite of impediments from portions of America’s cultural apparatus that are reflexively hostile to examining Gosnell’s career in infanticide.

The movie’s makers tried to raise money on a crowdfunding website that balked at graphic — meaning accurate — descriptions of the subject, because “we are a broad website used by millions of people.” However, a pluckier site gathered nearly $2.4 million from nearly 30,000 contributors. Almost all regular critics of movies were offered copies of the movie. A major film will receive about 270 media reviews, according to Mark Joseph, chief executive of MJM Entertainment Group. “Gosnell” received 12, even though in the October week it was released it was the top-grossing independent film and cracked the top 10 of all films in theaters. The critics’ boycott of the film continued the journalists’ indifference toward Gosnell’s trial.

As the prosecutors drove to the courthouse in 2013 for the first day of Gosnell’s trial on eight counts of murder (a woman who died following an abortion procedure, and seven snipped babies) and 24 felony counts of abortion beyond Pennsylvania’s 24-week limit, they anticipated a difficult maelstrom of media attention. They encountered something worse: virtually no attention. In spite of — actually, because of — its gruesome substance, the nearly two-month trial, which ended with Gosnell sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, was not covered until, by their example, a few journalists — especially USA Today’s Kirsten Powers — embarrassed others into paying attention. If Gosnell’s victims had been middle-class instead of inner-city minorities, there surely would have been more interest in an abortion facility where babies were heard crying, and where a woman victim of Gosnell’s slapdash procedures went home with an arm and a leg of her baby still in her. According to grand jury testimony, early in Gosnell’s career of carnage he used a medical device lacking federal approval, “basically plastic razors that were formed into a ball”:

“They were coated into a gel, so that they would remain closed. These would be inserted into the woman’s uterus. And after several hours of body temperature . . . the gel would melt and these 97 things would spring open, supposedly cutting up the fetus, and the fetus would be expelled.”

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Recently in Texas, Samuel Little, 78, has been confessing to about 90 murders spanning 35 years. Now serving three life sentences for the murders of three Los Angeles women during the 1980s, he has been giving police details that seem to validate his claim to have killed in at least 14 states. A Texas district attorney says “we anticipate that Samuel Little will be confirmed as one of the most prolific serial killers in American history,” and the New York Times observes, “How a serial murderer could go on killing for years, apparently without anyone noticing a pattern, seems perplexing.”

Addressing tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City Oct. 10, Pope Francis made some of his toughest comments to date on abortion. (Video: Reuters)

That Gosnell could have been a much more prolific killer than Little is not perplexing, for two reasons. People who should have known did not want to know because knowing would have forced them to answer questions about when in an infant’s gestation it is preposterous to deny that a baby is present. And given that most “reproductive rights” militants oppose restrictions on late-term abortions because pre-born babies supposedly have no more moral significance than tumors, Gosnell sincerely thought he was doing nothing wrong in guaranteeing dead babies for those who paid for late-term abortions. This is why, in the movie and as actually happened, a female prosecutor is accurately warned by her supervisor that she would be characterized as “the prosecutor who went after reproductive rights.”

Paul Waldman

counterpointThe coming reign of reproductive terror

No one knows how many — certainly hundreds, probably thousands — spinal cords Gosnell snipped before the 2010 raid on his “clinic.” Law enforcement came looking for illegal drugs. They also found jars of babies’ feet, fetal remains in toilets and milk cartons, and a pervasive smell of cat feces — in a facility that had not been inspected for 17 years. Pennsylvania nail salons receive biennial inspections.

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