Rumors had swirled for decades that Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s inner-city Philadelphia abortion clinic was a house of horrors.
In fact, Gosnell had even fled to the Bahamas for nearly a decade after a horrific event in 1972, known as the Mother’s Day Massacre, in which nine of 15 poor women bused in from Chicago were badly injured by a gruesome experimental abortion procedure that he was testing on them.
But it took an investigation of Gosnell illegally writing painkiller prescriptions to bring the man to justice … and to reveal the grisly, ghastly manner in which he went about performing illegal, live-birth abortions on viable babies, mostly for poor Philadelphia women.
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer tells that gruesome story, step by step, as gutsy Philadelphia prosecutor Alexis McGuire, along with Detectives Wood and Stark, gather the evidence to make their case that Gosnell had murdered hundreds, maybe thousands, of babies over the years.
But the case they prosecute ultimately zeroes in on just one, Baby A, as well as the tragic case of an immigrant woman who died after Gosnell’s unlicensed clinic workers gave her a fatal dose of painkiller.
Alexis McGuire and Detective James Woods, along with Detective Stark, initially know nothing of the history surrounding Gosnell’s clinic. Their legal specialty is narcotics. And they’ve tracked down a number of leads that point them in the direction of Gosnell’s clinic as the source of huge amounts of illegal Xanax, OxyContin and Percocet hitting the streets of Philly.
It turns out that the DEA and the FBI are also investigating Gosnell’s clinic for similar reasons. A combined raid between the three organizations does indeed confirm some of those suspicions. But what they find in the filthy clinic—dozens of red garbage bags filled with nearly full-grown aborted fetuses, among other things—alerts them to the fact that there’s something much more unsettling than just illegal drug sales going on.
Alexis and Woods begin a deeper investigation that begins to reveal Gosnell’s long history of shady operating procedures. Their persistence—especially when it comes to Alexis—uncovers evidence of a woman named Karnamaya Monger dying after an abortion procedure at Gosnell’s clinic. They also discover a number of aborted fetuses whose intact bodies clearly indicate that the way they were induced and killed violated Pennsylvania law.
These ghastly discoveries compel Alexis to ask Philadelphia DA Dan Molinari to prosecute Gosnell for murder. “I thought you were pro-choice,” he says. “This is homicide, Dan. It’s homicide,” Alexis retorts.
Molinari is reluctant to pursue a case against an abortion clinic doctor, cognizant as he is of the political ramifications. But he’s won over by Alexis’ persistence and determination to prove that Gosnell had been illegally aborting and killing nearly full-term babies.
As the case plays out, Alexis and Woods discover an unlikely ally: a feisty young “investigative blogger” named Mollie Mullaney. Her pesky inquisitiveness is an annoyance at first. “Excuse me, Miss McGuire,” she asks, “Are you going to be the first prosecutor in America to charge an abortion doctor with murder?” But it turns out Mollie’s been researching Gosnell’s case herself for some unstated length of time. Mollie’s knowledge and contacts with young, poor nurses who worked at the clinic prove critical in Alexis’ ultimately successful prosecution of Gosnell for murder.
Woods, we learn, is a Catholic. He crosses himself at one point after witnessing some of Gosnell’s gruesome handiwork firsthand. And his daughter wears a cross during her marriage ceremony at a church, where we also hear the phrase “holy matrimony.”
Except for a few cleavage-baring tops, none
There’s very little here that’s visually violent, save two morgue scenes. In the first, we see a coroner in the midst of an autopsy on an adult corpse. In the second, we see a coroner, Alexis and Woods in morgue with a number of fetuses that were aborted. The doctor coaches Alexis on how to use a scalpel to discern whether the aborted babies’ grey matter was suctioned out before the procedure.
And that gets at the haunting, brutal specter of violence that pervades Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. We may not see a whole lot, but we hear a great deal about the process of abortion. We hear, in gruesome and heartbreaking detail, exactly how Gosnell ended the lives of viable babies. We also hear, in similar specificity, from a different abortion doctor (on the witness stand) as she details a normal abortion procedure. Indeed, Gosnell’s defense attorney has her walk through the procedure step by step, as he tries—it seems—to suggest that a “regular” or “normal” abortion differs little from the way that Gosnell himself went about it.
Elsewhere in the film, we see vials of aborted babies’ feet that Gosnell has kept (for, he says, DNA identification purposes). We hear that he often reused medical instruments without cleaning or sterilizing them, and his clinic is indeed filthy. At one point after apparently performing an abortion on a woman who looked very pregnant, Gosnell comes out to talk to investigators with blood all over his scrubs. He removes one bloody glove but not the other as he begins to eat a microwaved dinner in front of them. When investigators search his home, they find a decomposing cat (swarming with insects) in his cellar.
Five s-words, perhaps one partially uttered and unfinished f-word. God’s name is misused once. We hear two misuses of “d–n,” and one each of “h—,” “a–hole” and “b–tard.” One person describes the clinic as a “hellhole.”
After one particularly gruesome day of discoveries regarding Gosnell’s bloody work, Alexis is shown drinking wine by herself in a dark room; we later see that the wine bottle is empty.
As mentioned above, Gosnell also runs a well-oiled drug-selling operation as he peddles prescription meds to various buyers. We hear the brand names of several such medications.
Gosnell is depicted not so much as a moral monster but as an eccentric oddball whose moral bearings are utterly, completely scrambled. He apparently has no moral compunction whatsoever about killing viable babies whose births he induces. But we see that—jarringly—he has a deep affection for animals (especially his many cats) and for his family at the same time. He says that he believes what he is doing helps women, and he vociferiously argues that any restrictions to a woman’s right to choose is the real evil—not the way he goes about peforming abortion.
In another scene depicting Gosnell’s creepliy unhinged personality, he plays classical music on a piano while investigators search his house.
Speaking of cats, his filthy clinic practically seems like a sanctuary for them. They’re everywhere, as is their excrement, making an already squalid environment that much worse.
We see that bags of aborted babies, as well as other medical waste, are piled up all over the clinic. The overall scene that the investigators discover is bizarre, macabre and almost unimaginably dirty.
We learn that Gosnell has trained young employees—some as young as 15—to administer anaesthesia and drugs to women undergoing abortion in his absense. He brags that it only takes him about 20 minutes to train a teen on how to anesthetize a patient.
We hear that Gosnell paid homeless “junkies” $50 for their drivers licenses so that he could use them to help him write illegal drug prescriptions.
It’s revealed in the course of trial testimony that the Philadelphia Health Department had been ordered to leave Gosnell’s clinic alone (an order from “Governor Ridge,” a Health Department nurse testifies).
One character vomits.
As the full horror of what Dr. Kermit Gosnell has been doing becomes clear to Alexis McGuire, she tells her husband, “He’s been killing babies, Ed. He’s been delivering babies alive and then snipping their necks with scissors. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe. For 30 years.”
How has he gotten away with it? Alexis answers that question next: “Because nobody wanted to say anything. Nobody wanted to know.”
Then she vows, “I’m gonna get that b–tard.”
And so she does.
This dramatization of the trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is a brutally hard movie to watch, the kind of story that stays with you. After I watched the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about the horrors perpetrated by this morally unmoored man for hours afterward.
And even though the DA insists that the Gosnell case is about murder, not abortion, this is a film you can’t unsee, one that may very well change the way some viewers understand the tragedy of abortion. Anyone considering this film needs to know that its graphic verbal depictions of how an abortion happens spare nothing.
In perhaps the movie’s most poignant scene, Alexis questions a young nurse on the witness stand who snapped a picture of a baby whom Gosnell had just killed, a newborn who was still moving slightly even after the doctor did his grisly work.
“Why did you decide to take a picture of this particular baby,” Alexis asks.
“He was so big,” the nurse says. “He looked like he could be somebody’s little brother. I just thought there should be a picture of him. To show the world that he was here for a little while.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.