Our Own American Genocide: “Gosnell”
A friend once commented about Christian films, “For ‘Christian’ read ‘inferior’.” His critique was all too true. Christian films were too often hokey not holy. They were preachy, dull and message-driven, reminding one of the movie mogul’s bark, “If you wanna send a message, use Western Union!”
Nevertheless, there are few filmmakers who do not have some sort of message to communicate. Happily most movie-makers have learned how to embed the message in the flesh of the story, and the recent film Gosnell is a good example. We should be straight up here: This film about the hideous abortionist Kermit Gosnell would never have been made by a person with pro-abortion views. Throughout the film the actors repeat the mantra, “This is not about abortion.” It is a tongue-in-cheek denial. Of course the film is about abortion, but the motion picture storytellers have been astute enough to focus on the story, not the point of the story, and that is what makes the film so effective.
Gosnell plays as an old-fashioned courtroom drama. We know the template: A good-hearted journalist or cop stumbles upon a disturbing detail. He follows the lead, and a dangerous conspiracy unfolds, or a serial killer is exposed. They track down their man, battle the defense lawyers, and finally present the case. We all hold our breath as the grim-faced jurors return and await the verdict. It’s a classic formula, and it works well for Gosnell.
The producers of this media-ignored independent movie were wise not only to focus on the story, but also to steer around the temptation to show gruesome photographs of dead babies. They didn’t need to. Taking a leaf from the textbook for making horror films, they suggested more than they showed. They allowed the viewer to imagine the monster—which is always far more effective than showing it on the screen.
For those who are unaware of the basic outline of the story, the Philadelphia police and the FBI raided an inner-city abortion clinic, trying to track down the prescription drug trade going on below the counter. What they found was a house of horrors: refrigerators full of fetal corpses, unbelievable filth, piles of cash, unqualified personnel administering drugs and supervising abortions, and finally the disgusting abortionist himself, Dr. Kermit Gosnell.
Feeding off the crisis pregnancies of mostly African-American women, Dr. Gosnell performed late-term abortions, and when the babies were born alive, he snipped their spinal cords at the neck. The scandal extended to the officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, who did not inspect abortion clinics out of political bias.
The film portrays two details about Dr. Gosnell that would be considered over-the-top if the film were pure fiction. In the clinic he keeps a collection of rare turtles in a tank and is clearly far more concerned about their health and welfare than that of the African-American women and children he pretends to serve. More chilling is the scene (based on real life) in which the police raid Dr. Gosnell’s home, and he calmly welcomes them and proceeds to sit down at the piano and play the music of Chopin while they scour the squalid house.
While the African-American Gosnell is seen to be a disgusting villain, and his clinic shown in all its inner-city squalor, what is more chilling is the female abortionist who takes the stand in the trial scene. Perfectly coiffed and suited, she is presented as the ultimate, successful white professional. Without a blink she admits to performing 30,000 abortions in her career, and her explanation of the “procedure” is laced with all the usual euphemisms: the fetal heartbeat “ceased” after the potassium chloride injection; the “contents of the uterus” were “removed” as was the “brain matter” so the late-term skull could be “compacted” before removal.
Her smiling, efficient, and clean demeanor reminded me of a lesser-known film called Conspiracy, which chronicles the 1942 Wannsee conference where Hitler’s top advisors met to decide how to deal with millions of European Jews. With an excellent script, a top-notch British cast led by Kenneth Branagh, and taut direction, Conspiracy is based on the actual transcripts of the meeting of top Nazi party leaders as they discuss the “final solution.”
Like the prim and pretty abortionist in Gosnell, Mr. Branagh and his cast are smartly uniformed, disciplined, well-educated, and polite. Hair is combed and shoes are shined. In gentlemanly terms, surrounded by fine food, wine, and cigars in a beautiful country mansion, they discuss the most efficient methods for eliminating millions.
A link between the two films is the powerful use of classical music for ironic effect. Dr. Gosnell sits down and plays a most poignant piece of Chopin, and after deciding to kill millions in the gas chambers, Mr. Branagh’s character, General Reinhard Heydrich, comments with a smile, “Ah, Schubert’s Quintet… the adagio will tear your heart out.”
In The Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy makes a similar point. The old priest, Father Smith, studied in Germany before the war and mixed with an educated and sophisticated set of doctors and professors. They discussed literature, Wagner, and philosophy together, and when Smith returned as a soldier he found the same people were the ones working in the concentration camps.
While Gosnell tells the true story of a squalid, back-street abortion mill, Conspiracy reminds us that the majority of murders are committed legally by nice, middle-class people who are well-connected, well-off, well-educated, well-spoken, and well-funded. While Dr. Gosnell rots in a prison in Pennsylvania, the nice lady who appeared at his trial goes to work at the clinic every day, then enjoys dinner in a luxurious country home with fine wines, influential friends, and sophisticated conversation… our own suburban, female Eichmann.
This essay was first published by the Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A graduate of Oxford University, he is the author of sixteen books, including The Romance of Religion and Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. He contributes to many magazines, papers, and journals, including Crisis, Integrated Catholic Life, National Catholic Register and Intercollegiate Review. Visit his blog at Standing on My Head, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.