Gosnell (Film Review)

Gosnell is subtitled the Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, signaling a true-crime story. The film is that, and more. For all the horror and injustice inherent in the crimes of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, this movie is about ordinary people and how they went about clearing away the horror and bringing justice to victims.

In Gosnell, the focus is on people, not on issues or causes. Therein lies the film’s strength.

The real-life Kermit Gosnell is serving life in prison after being convicted in of three counts of first-degree murder, one count of manslaughter, and a host of lesser charges. He got away with murder and a filthy clinic for many years, as authorities in Pennsylvania – Republican and Democrat alike – determined that regulation and oversight of abortion facilities was bad for women. Politics collided with women’s health.

The result at Gosnell’s abortion “clinic”: women died, women suffered, and children who survived attempted late-term abortion were ghoulishly murdered. Body parts from aborted children were kept like trophies; leaking bags of medical waste littered the facility. Gosnell’s crimes were discovered by authorities only by accident, as police raided the clinic as part of a drug investigation.

In the hands of an inept screenwriter or the wrong director, this true-crime story could have gone badly awry.  The makers of Gosnell got it right. The script leans heavily on trial transcripts and a grand jury report, yet dialogue flows naturally. The filmmakers thankfully manage largely to avoid melodrama; the sensational subtitle of the film is an exception.

The film’s subject matter made conventional funding hard to come by. The team behind the movie resorted to crowdfunding, and 30,000 people donated a total of $2.3 million to bring Gosnell to the screen.

Individual human beings matter in this film, including the women who came to Gosnell for abortions. The only judgment that viewers are invited to make regarding the women is about the mistreatment to which they were subjected.

The film takes time to do something that Philadelphia health authorities never did: tell the story of Karnamaya Mongar,  who came to Gosnell for an abortion. She wound up dead from an overdose of drugs administered by a poorly-trained staff acting under Gosnell’s direction. Eventually, Gosnell was convicted of manslaughter in her death, no thanks to the state and local health authorities who failed to inspect Gosnell’s facility for more than a decade.

The first glimmer of justice for Gosnell’s patients came thanks to police, most of them indifferent to abortion, who carried out a drug raid and discovered much more than they bargained for. They had no political agenda. They simply did their jobs and followed the evidence.

Dean Cain portrays Detective James Wood, engaging and friendly. His laconic partner, Stark, is played by AlfonZo Rachel, better known for his social commentaries on various media platforms.

At times during the film, the scenes of investigation are so ill-lit as to be irksome. One strains to see what’s happening on the screen- can’t there be more light?  All that can be seen at one time is what’s illuminated by a single police officer’s flashlight: a dirty piece of equipment, bloody linens, quick (but never gratuitous) views of Gosnell’s “trophies.” No gore, no exaggeration, yet those glimpses pack a punch.

Evidence from Gosnell’s office and home landed on the desks of prosecutors in Philadelphia who harbored no illusions about the trouble that would accompany the prosecution of an abortionist. Lead prosecutor Lexi McGuire  – a composite character played by Sarah Jane Morris – is pro-choice, but she refuses to look the other way when investigators bring her evidence of children killed by Gosnell after they survived attempted abortion. Like the investigators, she’s an ordinary person who does her job, and in so doing finds herself changed.

Earl Billings is unsettling as Kermit Gosnell. Unflappable in the face of investigators, bizarrely concerned about the welfare of his cats and turtles, calmly playing piano as police and prosecutors search through his files, Billings’s Gosnell seems like an affable if slightly ditzy grandfather. His face gives no clue to his taste for carnage. The screenwriters’ version of the doctor tracks closely with the documentation of the actual case and with interviews Gosnell has granted since his conviction.

Ironically, the only over-the-top characterization in the film comes from the man whose direction keeps the film understated. Director Nick Searcy plays Gosnell’s attorney, an expensively-clad shark who defends Gosnell with fierce and noisy passion. He chips away at the numerous charges against his client, but he can’t quite make jurors forget Karnamaya Mongar or the photos of babies with their spines “snipped.”

Gosnell’s office was raided in 2010. The trial was in 2013. During all that time, the Philadelphia Inquirer covered the case as a local-crime story, while most other media outlets ignored it. Finally, during the trial, national reporters were goaded (shamed?) into covering the story as a few journalists called attention to Gosnell. In the movie, the intrepid few who covered the case from day one are blended to create the character Molly Mullaney, a blogger (or “citizen journalist,” as she crisply introduces herself), played with attitude by Cyrina Fiallo.

Gosnell is based in part on the book by the same name by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, husband-and-wife authors who documented the trial and later teamed up to produce the film. In the book, McElhinney describes how her own views were affected by the doctor’s crimes.

I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious….

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

A story so powerful deserves to be told with care, and Gosnell meets the challenge.

After viewing the film, I went back to re-read the grand jury report that led to Gosnell’s trial. It underscores how much restraint was exercised by the makers of Gosnell as they brought the story to the screen.

Had state and local officials performed their duties properly, Gosnell’s clinic would have been shut down decades ago. Gosnell would have lost the medical license that he used to inflict irreparable harm on women; to illegally abort viable, late-term fetuses; and to kill innumerable babies outside the womb….Let us say right up front that we realize this case will be used by those on both sides of the abortion debate. We ourselves cover a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion. For us as a criminal grand jury, however, the case is not about that controversy; it is about disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants. We find common ground in exposing what happened here, and in recommending measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.


Gosnell premieres nationwide on Friday, October 12, 2018. See gosnellmovie.com for a list of theaters. 

“We find the tables we need to be sitting at”

Second in a series of reports from the 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference. Part one is here

My first look at the long list of speakers for the third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference (PLWC) told me that there weren’t enough hours on the clock for me to be able to hear all of them. And then at the very first gathering – a Friday night dinner – the organizers threw an unscheduled speaker into the already-full program. I had never heard of her.

Art contest entries at PLWC 2018
Montage of entries in art contest at 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference

I thought Really? Sticking someone right after Serrin Foster? That’s just unkind. The longtime leader of Feminists for Life had keynoted the gathering with a challenging talk. She’s a tough act to follow.

I needn’t have been concerned. Savannah Marten could take care of herself.

Revolutionizing the Conversation

Conference emcee Abby Johnson introduced Marten, who’s the director of The Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo (Ohio). “She is someone who is willing to build bridges. What Savannah has done has absolutely revolutionized the conversation about what it means to be pro-life.”

What she’s done is push past her comfort zone, into working relationships with unconventional allies. That theme was to come up again and again during the conference.

Savannah said that three days into her job as The Pregnancy Center’s director, she was asked by a community leader what the Center was doing about infant mortality. “I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I was mortified that I had been in the pro-life community for seven years and hadn’t heard one person talking about infant mortality.”

I later looked up figures from the Centers for Disease Control: in 2016, New Hampshire’s infant mortality rate was 3.7 (deaths per 1,000 live births). Nationwide, the rate was 5.9. In Savannah’s state, Ohio, the rate was 7.4. “In my state, the state of Ohio, we are 49th out of 50 for African-American babies dying before their first birthday.

“The pro-life community should be number one in the community showing up for this topic. My life motto is…’what table do I need to be at to be able to use my voice of influence?’ We find the tables we need to be sitting at in order to effectively advance this cause. Where tables do not exist, we build them, and we invite our community to those tables.”

This is when I started taking notes. I knew I was about to hear a story worth sharing.

“I knocked on every door”

She began to educate herself by reaching out to people already working with at-risk women. “I knocked on every door I possibly could in my community. I said ‘I’m not here to talk about abortion. I’m not here to talk about politics. I’m not here to talk to you about anything other than why black babies are not making it to their first birthdays in our community.’ And they invited me to the table.

“These are people who have even stood outside of my pregnancy center with signs in protest. Now all of a sudden they’re welcoming me to the table.”

Faith leaders with whom Savannah had never spoken before were critical to the conversation. “We began to interact with the African-American faith community. Our center had existed for 32 years, and not one predominantly African-American church had any sort of partnership [with us]. I simply said ‘walk me through your neighborhood and talk to me about what is going on in your neighborhood. Talk to me about the babies.’

“And suddenly they began to talk. They began to want to sit down and hear about what we were doing at the pregnancy center.” Over time, mutual trust and respect developed.

Working with a hospital

Savannah’s next step was to approach the major hospital in her area, on behalf of her pregnancy center. “[Hospital representatives] learned that women come to my pregnancy center, at five or six weeks gestation, and they are the number one women at risk for infant mortality and low birth weight. [Later in pregnancy] this hospital cannot even get them to show up for their appointments. Most of them show up at the emergency room and deliver their children there. And we wonder why [children] are not making it to their first birthday.”

Meeting after meeting followed, progress coming by inches. Eventually, a breakthrough: “the largest hospital in northwest Ohio…gave us access to their scheduler.”

Now, “every woman who comes in [to The Pregnancy Center] for an ultrasound leaves our facility with an OB/GYN appointment scheduled for them. If they leave our center and they wait another six weeks to call [the hospital for an appointment], they’re not going to get in.

“We cannot be satisfied with handing these women pamphlet after pamphlet, and referral after referral.  Women who are in poverty, women who are in crisis, need more than referrals. They need a life raft. That’s what we’re committed to do.”

Anyone who has been involved in interagency collaborations knows that conflicts arise, some of them irreconcilable. Savannah was faced with one shortly after the scheduling breakthrough with the hospital. “The same week that this hospital gave us access to their scheduler, they signed a transfer agreement with our city’s last abortion facility. I was plagued with this question: do we back out from providing thousands of women health care, because a hospital didn’t make a church decision? Or do we live by our core principle that says we come to the table to effect change and influence those in our community?”

She made a decision that brought her criticism from some pro-life allies. I think her experience is instructive. “Among unpopular opinion, we chose to continue our partnership with this hospital. If the abortion facility is going to enter into a partnership and influence our hospital, then the pro-life community should be at that same table advocating [for] what women in our community need.”

And by the way, that hospital has just accepted Savannah Marten’s application for a board position.

“This is how we effect change. We go to the tables we’re not comfortable in, the tables we’re not invited to, the tables that cause us to think differently and look at things differently.”

“We need Esthers”

Savannah Marten is Christian, and she used a Biblical reference to challenge her listeners at the conference. “We need Esthers to arise. We need Esthers who will stand up and catch the ear of the men and women of influence in our community. But we haven’t done that. We hide in our little pro-life communities. There’s no excuse. There’s no reason for us to hide. Because I have been crucified with Christ, and no longer I who live but he who lives in me. You have nothing to be afraid of. We already have the victory. Be joyful. Stay hopeful. ”

(The PLWC is a non-sectarian gathering, but that doesn’t mean any speaker is bashful about expressing her beliefs.)

She spoke about a community leader, a big-time Democrat, whom she has come to know during her tenure at the Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo. One day he said to her, “I  am now proudly pro-life, because you’ve shown me what true pro-life looks like.”

Savannah Marten could have dismissed as a distraction that long-ago question about infant mortality. She could have discounted it because it came from someone not supportive of her Center’s work. Instead, she had enough humility to acknowledge that she had something to learn. She had the guts to walk up to people she didn’t know and say “please show me around.” She had the patience to work to gain trust from hospital representatives.

And now, she wants to see more of us going out and finding, or building, those tables where conversations can take place.

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Blogger at work: greetings from PLWC 2018!

 

 

Arrival: Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2018

Months of planning and watching the pennies have brought me here to St. Louis, or rather St. Charles, Missouri. The third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference is a few hours away.

From the conference web site: This is a three day event by women and for women to proclaim that women’s empowerment cannot be attained by the oppression of other human beings. Many groups are represented: And Then There Were None, Feminists for Life, the Radiance Foundation, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, Americans United for Life, and more.

The groups aren’t as important as the individuals here. Knowing that And Then There Were None is here is one thing. Listening to a woman who used to work in the abortion industry and who found ATTWN’s help in transitioning to other work is something else entirely. Continue reading “Arrival: Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2018”

Cecile’s Legacy

Originally posted at DaTechGuy blog, 5/2/18.

Seen at NH March for Life 2018.

The Twitterverse murmured #ThankYouCecile the other day to mark the end of Cecile Richards’s tenure leading the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Hats off to the Babylon Bee for skewering that bit of social media hashtagging: “Woman Celebrated for Killing 3.5 Million People.”

That satirical bull’s eye came just a few days after another one from the same source: “Planned Parenthood Defends Bill Cosby: ‘Sexual Assault Is Only 3% Of What He Does’”. I wish I’d written that.

But in all seriousness, Richards is a consequential woman. It would be a mistake to pretend otherwise. Planned Parenthood has had high-profile leaders before and will have them again. What sets Richards apart are the sheer bloody numbers and her solid brass determination. Continue reading “Cecile’s Legacy”

EMILY’s List makes its Choice for N.H. Governor: Molly Kelly

Fresh off a victory by its preferred candidate in the Manchester mayoral election, EMILY’s List has announced that it is throwing its endorsement and cash into the New Hampshire governor’s race in support of Molly Kelly.

Kelly is a Democrat and a former state senator from Keene (district 10). I was in the Senate gallery on several occasions as she spoke against fetal homicide legislation and in favor of the buffer zone law.

Her formal statement in response to the EMILY’s List endorsement, as reported by WMUR’s John DiStaso, includes the candid if clichéd declaration “I trust women to make their own health care decisions,” thereby smoothly assuming that abortion is health care – an assertion that the Republican incumbent has shown no inclination to dispute. Kelly adds, “As governor, I will defend funding for Planned Parenthood.” Well, so does the Republican incumbent governor, even though he strayed off the PP script once as Executive Councilor. That incumbent has already indicated that he’s running for re-election.

Kelly entered the Senate after winning a 2006 election over former Senate president Tom Eaton, who lost to her again in 2008 and 2010. In 2012, she won re-election by a 2-1 margin over her Republican challenger. In 2014, Republicans didn’t bother to put up a candidate against her. She retired after that term, and the district 10 state senate seat is now held by Democrat Jay Kahn.