The movie poster for Gosnell.

What’s this Movie’s Motive?

Kermit Gosnell Comes to the Multiplex—Or Not

What is the Kermit Barron Gosnell story? You may remember, back in 2013, the then-72-year-old was sentenced in Philadelphia to life in prison (without the possibility of parole) plus thirty years. Gosnell had waived his right to appeal in exchange for an agreement by prosecutors not to seek the death penalty.

Say what? That’s a lot of hard time.

Well, as charged and convicted, there was a lot of crime: first-degree murder in the deaths of three infants and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Karnamaya Mongar; 21 felony counts of illegal late-term abortion; and 211 counts of violating Pennsylvania’s 24-hour informed-consent law. Media coverage of the 2011 trial and later sentencing described Gosnell, whose degree is from Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College, as an “abortion doctor.” Prosecutors preferred the term “serial killer.”

An additionally sensational aspect of the story concerns the conditions in which Gosnell practiced. In an era of ever-expanding restrictions on legitimate clinics, Gosnell operated for decades in the most unsanitary environment, described in sickening detail to the Grand Jury and at trial. The least of these offenses involved the widespread use of non-trained or non-licensed personnel in medical roles. According to the Grand Jury report, no public-health inspector visited the facility in sixteen years. (A month after publication, Gov. Tom Corbett fired six employees at the Departments of Health and State.) Gosnell was above and beyond the law, until he wasn’t.

Say what? That’s a pre-Roe scenario, surely.

“Justice was served to Kermit Gosnell today and he will pay the price for the atrocities he committed,” Ilyse Hogue, president of naral Pro-Choice America, said in a statement quoted in the New York Times. She added a timely warning: “Anti-choice politicians, and their unrelenting efforts to deny women access to safe and legal abortion care, will only drive more women to back-alley butchers like Kermit Gosnell.”

Now, with a release timed to anticipate Halloween, this story hits the big screen in Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (2018).  Veteran actor Earl Billings plays the eponymous character as a man with obvious mental-health issues. Boasting fidelity to court transcripts, the film insists (on its face) that it’s not about abortion—it’s about murder.

Amber Gavin, Program Director at Lady Parts Justice League, isn’t buying it. “I think that the producers of the movie intend for every viewer to believe that Dr. Gosnell and his clinic, Women’s Medical Society, are what all abortion providers and abortion clinics look and function like,” she told Conscience. “My experience is that this could not be farther from the truth.”  Lady Parts Justice League describes itself as “a coven of hilarious badass feminists who use humor and pop culture to expose the haters fighting against reproductive rights.”

Supporting Gavin’s claim, “The makers of Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer knew exactly what they were doing when they planned a screening of their film in Austin, Texas, for the same night and location as a high-dollar Planned Parenthood fundraiser.” writes Lynde Langdon for North Carolina-based World. “People could make a choice,” the Irish writer-producer Ann McElhinney, told Landgon. “They could go to a $400 dinner celebrating Cecile Richards’ achievements, or they could go to our movie, which tells another story about the achievements of the movement that she’s part of.”

Say what? This inflammatory claim could well be libelous.

Antiabortionists, meanwhile, have been enthusiastic, and the film has a lively presence on Facebook. It was the No. 10 box office movie in its first week and grossed about $2.7 million from only 668 screens nationwide, according to World and Box Office Office Mojo. World reported that the film’s theatrical success has been “remarkable considering the uphill battle that husband-and-wife producers Ann McElhinney and Phelim MacAleer fought to bring it to the big screen.”

LifeSite agrees that this movie is hitting its audience: “Several people have attested to the film both converting them and inspiring them to do more for life.” Their report cites the recent example of a group in California “inspired” to take to “sidewalk counseling,” the practice of agressively confronting women presumed to be attending Planned Parenthood and other clinics for abortion. In the current political moment, when peaceful citizens can be subject to vehicular homicide for exercising constitutional rights, when bombs are mailed to senior politicians and public servants and places of worship lethally attacked by military-grade weaponary, this so-called “counseling” must seem particularly frightening to women going about their private, lawful business.

“The anti-abortion movement cares little about how and why the patients ended up at Gosnell’s clinic,” an unimpressed Amber Gavin asserts. “Nor do they care about what would happen next if anyone decided to continue their pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists did not, and do not, follow-up to make sure people receive prenatal care, financial or emotional assistance.”

Elsewhere, Michael Rechtshaffen of the Los Angeles Times echoes Gavin when he writes about this “none-too-subtle take on real-life courtroom drama” that “will never be mistaken for having a liberal bias.”  In his review, Rechtshaffen refers to the film’s “sanctimonious tone,” observing that “whatever pretense the production may have exhibited as [being about murder not abortion] is quickly cast aside with every clinically graphic description and pointed jab at the mainstream media it accuses of burying the trial.” Like Gavin, Rechtshaffen believes Gosnell “never loses sight of the choir to which it is plainly preaching.” This sentiment is echoed by Steven D. Greydanus in the National Catholic Register, among other reviewers.

Indeed, that choir helped finance the film. Langdon reminds us that an early Kickstarter campaign was closed down by the crowdfunding website back in 2014. The campaign immediately moved to Indiegogo where, by June 2015, it had raised an unprecedented $2.3 million for what World described as a “non-celebrity” film. (Nominal star and recognizable name, Dean Cain—best known for portraying Superman—mightn’t be best pleased with this descriptor.)  Some 26,574 donors contributed to the “Most Successfully Funded Campaign on Indiegogo,” Crowdfund Insider reports. The film’s director, actor Nick Searcy (TV’s Justified), joined the fundraising effort with YouTube pitches, telling the Washington Examiner in 2014: “This is a story that needs to be told.” He added, cryptically: “No one wants to talk about it because the details are too damaging to certain political agendas.”

Does it matter that Kermit Gosnell is African American?

“I am also disgusted by the way the movie uses black women under the guise of sharing their stories,” says Amber Gavin, noting that merely appropriating anti-discrimination catch-phrases doesn’t add up to advocacy. “Anti-abortion activists show no inclination to be at marches or rallies for racial justice causes, nor do they fight for black women to have bodily autonomy and full reproductive justice,” Gavin contends.

If everything in America is about race, race is present here only in the visuals—heroes are overwhelmingly white (personable Sarah Jane Morris, another TV favorite, is the lead prosecutor); the villian unmistakeably black. For good measure, the lead detective is a white Roman Catholic family man. With dog-whistle messaging moving center-stage in our politics, these optics assume a malevolent significance. That Gosnell, this Freddy Krueger of desperate women—or, rather, the uncredited movie pianist—plays Beethoven and Chopin so beautifully does not mitigate his role as the scary black monster of racist nightmare.

Latest news suggests that Gosnell’s time at the multiplex may be coming to an end. In a late-October report, the Christian Post tells us that “hundreds of theaters” have dropped the movie, despite its strong box-office performance. Antiabortion paranoia is in overdrive on the web. The movie will continue to have an afterlife on Facebook and online streaming.

Given such a multifaceted backstory, is it possible to watch Gosnell as a dispassionate movie goer or critic? This reviewer, hardly a neutral voice on either abortion or the movies, found the film less obvious than Rechtshaffen did. Watchable in the way of TV movies, it is without distinction as art. Competent in script, direction and performances, the whole is ho-hum, memorable only—perhaps this is the point?—for its scenes of squalor in a property now on the real-estate market. (Brokers refer to it as akin to selling Jeffrey Dahmer’s home.)

This is a horror film, to be sure, but the truth about Kermit Gosnell is a horror story. Hell will freeze over before those of us committed to supporting women’s agency and reproductive rights will claim him.

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

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