Lodged in his prison cell at the Huntingdon State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, Kermit Gosnell remains as unnoticed today on the American cultural landscape as he was during his murder trial in 2013.
But Gosnell’s invisibility, then and now, is thanks in large part to a priority that quietly dominates so much of U.S. culture and politics: the protection of maximum access to abortion.
On October 12, the independent film “Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer” opened nationwide in theaters — but the film has not gained wide coverage due to a reluctance by major media outlets to engage a ghastly subject entwined with abortion politics.
Ann McElhinney, an Irish documentary journalist who crowdfunded and produced “Gosnell” with her husband, Phelim McAleer, told Angelus News that they wanted Americans to know the story of Gosnell.
The film, styled after the Law and Order format, shows how Gosnell was allowed to get away with his crimes, with the state indifferent to the fate of women, thanks to his politically protected profession: abortion.
“This is a story that needs to be known,” she said. McElhinney said some have told her the film has moved them as powerfully as “The Passion of the Christ.” Some audiences have even prayed together afterward.
During his 40-year-long stint as an abortion provider, Gosnell killed more than 1,000 unborn children yearly on average through abortion. But the late-term abortionist’s career came to a crashing end when his Women’s Medical Society abortion practice in Philadelphia was raided on the suspicion of being an opioid drug den.
Law enforcement found in 2010 what they called a “house of horrors” — a filthy facility with damaged and unsterilized equipment, bloodied patients in semi-conscious states, and infant bodies kept refrigerated in jars like trophies, stored beside employee lunches.
They discovered evidence Gosnell had been performing late-term abortions by delivering babies fully before stabbing their backs and snipping their spinal cords.
The grand jury in 2011 made clear such evil was made possible because multiple state agencies deliberately turned a blind eye for 17 years, failing to inspect Gosnell’s clinic or act on complaints, in the name of preserving abortion access.
“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion,” the grand jury concluded.
A jury finally sent Gosnell to life in prison without parole after rendering a guilty verdict in May 2013 on three counts of first-degree murder for killing three infants shortly after delivering them.
He was also convicted for manslaughter in the death of Karnamaya Mongar, a woman from Bhutan who died taking a dangerous sedative that Gosnell administered because it was cheap.
Gosnell’s trial prompted some states to tighten safety regulations on abortion clinics, but such regulations in Virginia and Texas were eventually struck down in courts on the basis that compliance would create an undue burden to abortion access.
Popular views unmoved
Gosnell is hardly notorious in Pennsylvania, let alone the rest of the United States — a situation that prompted the new film. Steve Bozza, who became director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office of Life and Family during the Gosnell trial, told Angelus News that the trial took place in what seemed like a virtual media blackout.
“Gosnell was certainly a rallying cry of the movement,” he said. Pro-life advocates following the case were energized. But beyond them, most people in Pennsylvania have not heard about Gosnell, and pro-life political success in the state has been mixed.
The case, even when the mainstream media gave it coverage, did not significantly change abortion positions.
In May 2013, Gallup found that most Americans (54 percent) were not following the trial at all. Just 7 percent of Americans followed it closely, and 18 percent followed it “somewhat closely.” Among the generation born after Roe v. Wade, 18-34-year-olds, Gallup found that 71 percent were not following the case.
In the five years between the Gosnell trial and the film’s release this year, American attitudes remained as unchanged and contradictory over abortion as ever. Gallup’s most recent 2018 surveys found the population is evenly divided between calling itself pro-life (48 percent) and pro-choice (48 percent).
A majority favors more restrictions on legal abortion, but 6 out of 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in the first trimester, when 89 percent of abortions of unborn children are estimated to take place.
Gallup’s polling also took place in the aftermath of the 2015 David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry.
With multiple generations of women having abortions following Roe v. Wade, the U.S. cannot bear to face the reality of abortion, explained Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society of Human Life.
“We have become a culture that is in many ways complicit in abortion as a social need,” she said.
Turner said breaking the silence, and changing hearts and minds on abortion requires an honest conversation.
Her own openness about the harm done by aborting her child in 1981, she said, has helped her family have that important conversation with someone they love. But without her setting that moral tone, “We would be a very different family.”
Changing the conversation
In many ways, the Daleiden-Merritt exposé of the abortion industry has affirmed a pattern set by the Gosnell case: The gruesome acts of abortion providers may spark pro-life outrage, but they do not leave a lasting impact on the national psyche.
“We’re not moving the needle with any of these things,” Kathleen Buckley Domingo, senior director of the Office of Life, Justice, and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told Angelus News.
She said the graphic images make an impression that ends up forgotten within a week unless pro-life advocates can continue the dialogue. “We need to get to the heart of the matter.”
Pro-lifers have to be willing to look across the aisle, she said, and challenge both parties to do the right thing with Catholic social teaching.
Fundamentally, Domingo added, pro-life advocates need to address the push factors driving women to seek abortion. Graphic images may haunt them, but Domingo said they are likely insufficient to overcome the crises and lack of support that brought them to seek abortion: poor behavioral choices, domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape, or grinding poverty.
Domingo pointed out that rent and child care in Los Angeles are sky-high. Sidewalk counselors are recognizing women from church — according to Guttmacher 24 percent of abortion clients are Catholic — and many of them are mothers.
Approximately 6 out of 10 women who have abortions are already mothers, and Domingo said that local Planned Parenthood clinics have asked their clients to stop bringing their children.
Domingo said the pro-life community has to change these facts for women who experience life “ordered around a world where abortion is available,” and by changing that world show women that abortion does not have to be “a necessary piece of their life story.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register and is a frequent contributor to Angelus.
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