“Gosnell” centers on the investigation and trial of clinic owner Kermit Gosnell, now convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case of Mongar — and of murdering three infants who were born alive and killed by what some experts call “after birth abortions.” (The trial suggested that it was likely Gosnell had done this to hundreds of infants although there was not enough evidence to bring more than three convictions.) Despite years of botched procedures, hospital doctors who treated the women injured — sometimes fatally — by Gosnell appear to have failed to comply with professional ethics and to have not reported the doctor’s incompetence. Because abortion in America is more about politics than policy, politics trumped truth and justice.
The movie, therefore, brings to the big screen a miniature drama of the abortion debate writ large, with both sides advancing their narratives at the expense of the potential for common ground around good policy: access to health care for poor pregnant women, abortion clinic regulations and the question of when a nascent child is entitled to legal protections.
“Gosnell” is not a high-quality film. It’s on par with a made-for-television true crime drama (the genre it adheres to closely in structuring the plot around the trial). Yet the film is impressive solely for making it this far. It was funded through crowdsourcing, reportedly having to overcome resistance by actors, distributors and advertisers along the way.
It’s an honest film in two senses. First, it follows the documented facts of the case fairly faithfully (if inartistically). Second, the screenplay was written by two painstaking foreign journalists, Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, who covered the trial when few other American media outlets bothered to do so. In the book upon which the film is based, McElhinney writes that before covering this case, she had always dismissed the images and characterizations of abortion given by antiabortion advocates as mere propaganda. She doesn’t believe that anymore. “Abortion arguments from pro-abortion advocates tend to avoid any actual talk of how an abortion is done and what it actually is that is being aborted.” The evidence from the trial “changed me,” McElhinney writes.
Yet this film doesn’t focus primarily on whether abortion is right or wrong, but more so takes aim at the conditions in the clinic and the reasons Gosnell’s crimes were ignored.
Like the film “Spotlight,” which looked at institutional coverup in the Catholic Church, “Gosnell” is about abuses of institutions and policies, abuses that too many turned a blind eye to for too long.
The biggest headlines when this story broke were not about Gosnell’s horrific crimes. They were about the story accompanying the photo one local journalist took of the rows and rows of empty seats reserved in the courtroom for media who didn’t initially show up. As with “Spotlight,” it took a brave journalist, commentator Kirsten Powers, to break the story nationally and call other outlets to account (some of which later issued apologies).
The grand jury report in the Gosnell case revealed that for years government agencies that should have provided oversight and accountability for the doctor — from state health officials to the governor’s office — failed to do so properly. Thus, in a filthy clinic that went uninspected for years and where law enforcement officers found fetal parts stored in jars and milk cartons, Gosnell trafficked drugs, allowed unskilled office personnel to perform medical procedures, and took money from poor, desperate women whose bodies he treated like the meat he fed to cats who swarmed through the clinic. Among the worst details of the testimony was Gosnell’s joke that one baby he aborted was “big enough” to “walk me to the bus stop.”
It’s hard to blame ordinary citizens from turning away from a story — a true one — that is so gruesome. But if we don’t know what constitutes gruesome, then we don’t know what is normal. In one scene in the film, one witness, a young nursing student, is asked if she thought the horrific things she observed while working in the clinic were normal. She replies, “I don’t know. I’d never been in an abortion clinic.”
Yet, as horrific as Gosnell’s malpractice was, it rivals the systemic regulatory and community failures and incompetence that enabled him to continue unchecked for so many years. Based on the evidence brought forth in the trial, the film portrays this reluctance to investigate Gosnell as rooted in the sense that it would be political suicide for any official to be seen as “attacking abortion.” If this is indeed the current political reality, then assurances made by abortion advocates that Gosnell was a “rogue” provider carry little promise.
“Gosnell” offers us all the chance to glimpse some of what may happen in some clinics, if we will but refuse to turn a blind eye, regardless of what policies and politics we support.
Because here’s the thing we are all learning — sometimes too late: Turning away from the abuses of and by the things we believe in, whether it be our church denominations, our public policies, our favorite filmmakers, or our favorite sports, won’t save those things. It will destroy them.
Karen Swallow Prior is an English professor at Liberty University and the author of “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Literature.” She is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, a senior fellow with Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.