On the day that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a judge on the highest court in the land, this new film is as appropriate a choice as any for our Saturday movie date: it was America's abortion absolutism that drove both the fanatical opposition to Justice Kavanaugh's nomination and the media blackout on the case of Dr Kermit Gosnell, and their opposition to anyone telling his story. Gosnell opens in movie theaters this coming Friday, but a few days ago The Mark Steyn Club Cruise hosted a special screening with filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer as we sailed through the Gulf of St Lawrence. The audience was profoundly moved. Katie, one of our Pennsylvania Club members, described it over at Ricochet as "shattering", which it is. One lady, having worked in a very famous West Coast medical facility, said that Dr Kermit Gosnell's preferred method of "abortion" - live births - was common there too, and that we were all "complicit". Another viewer focused on his own profession of anesthetist, and teared up as he recalled the untrained fifteen-year-old who functioned as Gosnell's and used a handmade color-coded chart to remember what to give whom. In fact, unlike the older women with whom she worked, the teenager had at least some semblance of sympathy for the patients, a rare sighting of human feeling in a building from which it had otherwise fled.
Dr Gosnell is almost certainly America's all-time champion serial killer. Some of us wrote about that way back when:
This is a remarkable moment in American life: A man is killing actual living, gurgling, bouncing babies on an industrial scale - and it barely makes the papers.
And, just as he couldn't make the papers, there was little chance of this particular mass murderer ever making the silver screen - until, as I put it on The Mark Steyn Show, "a couple of Irish chancers" decided to crowdfund a movie on the subject. If making the film was hard, breaking through the societal omertà is harder: The Hyatt in Austin, for example, just canceled a screening at the behest of Planned Parenthood. So do be alert both to bookings of Gosnell at your local multiplex and to attempts to get it bounced. As producers and (with Andrew Klavan) screenwriters, Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer set out to tell a story none of the big studios would touch, and their doggedness deserves to find an audience.
In the course of bringing one Philadelphia "doctor" to trial, almost every person in a position of authority in Pennsylvania cautioned that this case "is not about abortion". And thus the tale as told by the writers and director Nick Searcy: it starts out as a story not about abortion, but about illegal drugs, and a multi-agency federal/state investigation that leads to a particular inner-city clinic. When they enter, they find a garbage-strewn dump where cats wander in and out of operating rooms defecating freely, where "medical waste" is piled up wherever space can be found, and where the kitchen fridge is filled with dozens of jars containing tiny baby feet preserved as if they were pickled eggs. The doctor arrives with food for his pet turtles, who are treated better than any of the women. "This is normal?" asks Detective Stark (Alonzo Rachel). "I dunno," says his partner (Dean Cain). "I've never been in an abortion clinic before."
Their curiosity is resented by the bigshot feds from the DEA and the FBI, who don't want abortion getting in the way of their routine drugs bust. Likewise, the Department of Health has sent along a hatchet-faced nurse to ensure that the raid does not in any way impede the "procedures" being performed at the clinic: No one wants this case to be "about" abortion - not the District Attorney, concerned about the politics of being seen to oppose "reproductive rights"; not the Assistant DA's own obstetrician or the doctor next door, both of whom refuse to testify; and certainly not the lady judge, who's more concerned about the welfare of Gosnell's turtles than of his patients.
Wandering genially through the squalor and degradation is the abortionist himself. Earl Billings is the spitting image of Kermit Gosnell and plays him as an affable black man with a beatific smile and a soft-spoken manner that never rises to any epithet stronger than "Oh, my!" It is a remarkable performance of a man of many contradictions, not least in the strange mix of refined esthetic sensibility and total indifference to minimum hygiene standards: in one memorable scene, he plays Chopin on the parlor piano as millions of fleas swarm up the legs of the cops in the basement below.
For a man who delivers babies and then cuts their spines to kill them, he proves a surprisingly wily adversary for the Assistant District Attorney. Sarah Jane Morris appears to have been cast at least in part as the very acme of contemporary womanhood: Beautiful, strong, vulnerable; lawyer, jogger, mom of five and firmly pro-choice. She takes the not-about-abortion line seriously, and calls a respected, law-abiding abortion provider to testify to how far out of the abortion mainstream Dr Gosnell is. The doctor is played by Janine Turner as a paragon of gentility - earrings, pearls, tailored business suit; safe and clean and reassuring, the very opposite of Gosnell's cat feces and baby feet in the fridge. She is a sympathetic and compelling witness until defense counsel (played by the film's director Nick Searcy) rises to ask his first question: How many abortions has she performed?
She answers: "About 30,000."
Phelim McAleer told our Steyn Club cruisers that that was one of the few lines he changed from the court transcripts. She actually replied 40,000, but he reduced it to make it seem less implausible. How many of us in the course of our lives do 30,000 of anything? That's a shag a day for 82 years; that's eight performances a week of Les Misérables for 72 years. But this nice, respectable doctor has aborted three babies a day for thirty years: safe, legal and ...not so rare. It is a lawyer's job to represent his client's interests as best he can, and so, illustrating his questions with forceps and sonograms, the defense attorney sets about demonstrating that what Gosnell does is not so very different from what this calm professional sympathetic lady doctor does. This is the moment when the story becomes "about" abortion - because the lawyer's most effective defense of his client requires a demolition of the "moderate" case for abortion.
When I saw the movie the first time, I confess there were moments where I found the symbolism too neat, too pat: The baby feet in jars in Gosnell's fridge, for example, dissolve to the feet of the Assistant DA's newborn babe being cuddled and caressed by his loving mom. The second time I watched the film, however, I found the scene moving in its clarity - and I remembered an old widder woman among my neighbors who liked to tickle the feet of my own young 'un and coo, "So precious!" Why are some babies "so precious" and others just "medical waste"? Very few films make the obvious contrast Gosnell does, because they understand that avoiding that comparison is part of the way society learns to live with a great moral evil. The filmmakers do not belabor the point: Indeed, the strength of Gosnell is that it is a true-crime drama, a police procedural, a courtroom cliffhanger and all kinds of other things rather than a piece of anti-abortion propaganda. They took the decision not to show any of the more graphic evidence of Gosnell's bloody work, so that the case against him and his black art is made at its coolest and, so to speak, most antiseptic. That was a shrewd decision: Gosnell is well filmed, well told, well acted, and both powerful and entertaining. But it also has a rare integrity that should be rewarded at the box office. If you don't see it on the forthcoming attractions, call your local theater and ask them to book it. You can't win a culture war if your side decides to sit it out.
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