Inside Gosnell’s House of Horrors

The name Kermit Gosnell is now relatively well known.

It should, of course, be better known.

He is after all one of the worst serial killers in the history of the United States. He was an abortionist and it is alleged that this fact alone has contributed to the media committing an astonishing act of indifference in the reporting of his trial and the subsequent crimes it revealed.

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A new book Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer documents not just the wrongdoing committed by Gosnell but also the media blackout that descended once the reality of what had taken place at his abortuary became apparent. It is perhaps no coincidence that this book was written by investigative journalists and filmmakers, a husband and wife team, not from the United States but from Ireland.

The first thing to say is that this book is not for those who are easily upset by the realities of abortion. What you read in these pages is something so dark, so evil and so sad as to be at times nauseating. As Ann McElhinney admitted in the introduction there were moments when researching the book she had had to stop to weep over what she was uncovering. The reader of this book is likely to experience something similar. Be under no illusion: this is a horror story. Early on in the police investigation, the address—3801 Lancaster Avenue—where Gosnell carried out his barbarism was named the “House of Horrors.” It was precisely that.

Sadly, this is no tale of bygone days, of some barbaric era long since past. This is a story of now, of what America in particular and the Western World in general will not countenance and that all the arguments to the contrary—whether reductive or self-serving—fail to accept: that when an abortion takes place, a life ends. Gosnell may be the embodiment of something very wrong in our society but this is a man who still to this day sees nothing wrong in what he did, and, sadly, maybe never will. In helping him to perpetuate this lie about his actions, Gosnell has had many fellow travelers. Among these none seem to have been more deplorable than certain members of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Some of its officials for far too long turned a blind eye to anything related to “reproductive health services” and to places such as Gosnell’s; in so doing, they unwittingly allowed the carnage to continue unabated.

kermitgosnell11The book’s authors maintain that even the number of murder charges brought against Gosnell was fewer, far fewer, than it should have been. This too, they suggest, was politically motivated. At Gosnell’s trial, the judge was openly ‘pro-choice’ on the matter of abortion. As it turned out, the jury was also made up of those who were not personally opposed to abortion or merely indifferent on the subject—something both prosecution and defense agreed upon when assembling a jury panel to try Gosnell and various accomplices on 8 counts of murder, 24 felony counts of performing illegal abortions beyond the state of Pennsylvania’s 24-week time limit, and 227 misdemeanor counts of violating the 24-hour informed consent law. In fact, at the start of the trial, the prosecution was at pains to stress that the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell was “not about abortion.” The only thing was, and as the book testifies time and again, that was exactly what it was about.

Interestingly, from his prison cell where he now serves a life sentence, Gosnell blames his arrest and conviction on a number of “Catholics opposed to abortion.” The only complaint against this excellent and thorough account of the events and personalities involved in the criminal activities at 3801 Lancaster Avenue is that Gosnell, the chief actor, leaves the stage without the audience really knowing who he is, or even, and perhaps more importantly, understanding why he acted as he did. Was it all simply about money? He was a millionaire by the time he was arrested. Did he kill disregarding any legal constraint merely for financial gain? Was it really as banal as that?

Notwithstanding this lacuna, whatever the motive, the story of Gosnell’s arrest and trial reads like a crime thriller. And, but for the persistence of a conscientious—indeed Catholic—undercover detective, Jim Wood, the doctor would still to this day have been left to ply his trade. Wood thought that Gosnell was involved in the criminal activity of selling prescriptions to drug peddlers—he was right. But, by then, after four decades of acting as he did, when it came to the law Gosnell thought that he was untouchable. As had been proved countless times, the bureaucrats of Philadelphia’s public health system appeared to care as little as Gosnell did about what went on at his facility and about those he harmed there by his activities.

There are some mental images conjured by the text that are hard to efface. One of these is the police officers’ first encounter with Gosnell. He emerged from the gloom of his decrepit office, hands covered in bloodied, ripped surgical gloves as he continued to eat fast food, some of which he proceeded to drop on the dirty floor, only to bend down and pick these bits up before resuming his dinner. It seems he ate constantly, heartily even, as he went about his business. He appeared indifferent to the fact that the premises in which he operated were filthy—later they were revealed to be covered in animal feces and human urine, with blood stains everywhere, and with any surgical equipment as old and unsafe as it was unhygienic; and then there were the “patients”: women left semi-conscious and bloodied in cheap recliner seats more suited to a beach party than a supposed medical facility.

It is the detailed description, drawn from court testimony, of the killing of his most helpless victims that is also the most gut-wrenching. These were babies born so large upon birth that some of the staff photographed them before a blade-wielding Gosnell ended the newborn lives. There were babies born crying for help only to be laughed at by the same staff as they watched the doctor once more step in. In this book, there are many horrors, far too many to recount here, some too sickening to recall. There is more than a whiff of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen about what took place only a handful of years ago at an address on a suburban street in Philadelphia. While reading Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer, one understands why its authors wept, and then prayed; there is little else to do when confronted with such evil.

Fearlessly, the book is unflinching in exposing Gosnell’s accomplices, namely his “medical staff.” As it turns out, these were anything but what they purported to be. Seemingly without a medical qualification between them, their only order from the doctor in charge was to “med-up” any woman who came to the “clinic,” which, of course, they did. That the medication used was inappropriate and unmeasured should come as no surprise. In a place that claimed to care for women, an evil spirit was loose that was as vile as the actions that had by then become routine. Among those working there, a callous coldness gave way to mocking humor. This was sometimes directed towards those who came to end a life, sometimes towards those who had unexpectedly emerged, still living from abortion attempts, fighting for life. One of the shocking revelations in a book of many shocks is how all who entered into Gosnell’s orbit and his abortion mill became as dehumanized as the people harmed, maimed or killed by the doctor’s actions. Some of Gosnell’s former employees have ended up in prison, many have not; all have been left scarred by their involvement with him. One employee talked to the authors of the recurring nightmares she still endures. It is always the same torment when each night a child, one of late term, comes to stand by her bedside

The Gosnell trial would have passed unnoticed, dismissed as a “local crime story” and, therefore, ignored by the national media had not a Philadelphia reporter contravened court rules and taken and then tweeted a photograph of the rows and rows of empty seats in the court reserved for the press. In the end, the picture went viral. A number of Catholic websites and some conservative media commentators expressed dismay at the seeming media blackout. This outcry soon snowballed, with the mainstream media unable to explain its lack of reporting of the Gosnell trial. Their eventual response was slow and half-hearted but some coverage did appear—if only to disappear soon after. It was as if, by then, the news outlets felt they had done enough—just enough—to say they had “covered the story,” and, thereafter, decided quietly to walk away. One suspects that another, more subtle media blackout quickly followed as the full horrors of what had transpired in Philadelphia came into view, and all linked to the word abortion.

Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer is a well-written and exhaustive study of the case. It is also an indictment of society as a whole. That said, at the end of the trial, the jurors did not hesitate to convict Gosnell. They knew what was criminal. From the outset the defense had skillfully argued that this was not a case about abortion, but that abortion, whether legal or otherwise, is always a “bloody business.” The question posed subsequently by the defense lawyer was a simple one: “Was what was killed human?” Put bluntly, what was the difference between killing a child in the womb—something legal—and, killing another, one minute after birth—something illegal? Perhaps the defense lawyer was unaware that he was asking a very different question than one simply relating to the guilt or otherwise of his client.

Ironically, as this question was being posed about the humanity of Gosnell’s victims, a picture of one—taken just moments prior to death—stared back at the jury. One of the jurors told how, on hearing that question and then glancing at the image, he found himself looking at the accused and asking the same question: “Are you human?”


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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