The Washington Post Sunday

America’s worst serial killer

- GEORGE F. WILL georgewill@washpost.com

Aword can be worth a thousand pictures. In the movie “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” the mild word “snip” describes what the camera, demonstrat­ing the eloquence of reticence, does not show in gory detail: Kermit Gosnell’s use of scissors to cut the spinal cords of hundreds of babies that survived his late-term abortion procedures.

Directed by actor Nick Searcy (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water”), this gripping truecrime courtroom drama, with dialogue taken from court transcript­s and police records, made it onto 670 screens, and earned nearly $4 million, and soon will be available in DVD format through Netflix. This, in spite of impediment­s from portions of America’s cultural apparatus that are reflexivel­y hostile to examining Gosnell’s career in infanticid­e.

The movie’s makers tried to raise money on a crowdfundi­ng website that balked at graphic — meaning accurate — descriptio­ns of the subject, because “we are a broad website used by millions of people.” However, a pluckier site gathered nearly $2.4 million from nearly 30,000 contributo­rs. Almost all regular critics of movies were offered copies of the movie. A major film will receive about 270 media reviews, according to Mark Joseph, chief executive of MJM Entertainm­ent Group. “Gosnell” received 12, even though in the October week it was released it was the top-grossing independen­t film and cracked the top 10 of all films in theaters. The critics’ boycott of the film continued the journalist­s’ indifferen­ce toward Gosnell’s trial.

As the prosecutor­s drove to the courthouse in 2013 for the first day of Gosnell’s trial on eight counts of murder (a woman who died following an abortion procedure, and seven snipped babies) and 24 felony counts of abortion beyond Pennsylvan­ia’s 24-week limit, they anticipate­d a difficult maelstrom of media attention. They encountere­d something worse: virtually no attention. In spite of — actually, because of — its gruesome substance, the nearly two-month trial, which ended with Gosnell sentenced to life imprisonme­nt without parole, was not covered until, by their example, a few journalist­s — especially USA Today’s Kirsten Powers — embarrasse­d others into paying attention. If Gosnell’s victims had been middle-class instead of inner-city minorities, there surely would have been more interest in an abortion facility where babies were heard crying, and where a woman victim of Gosnell’s slapdash procedures went home with an arm and a leg of her baby still in her. According to grand jury testimony, early in Gosnell’s career of carnage he used a medical device lacking federal approval, “basically plastic razors that were formed into a ball”:

“They were coated into a gel, so that they would remain closed. These would be inserted into the woman’s uterus. And after several hours of body temperatur­e . . . the gel would melt and these 97 things would spring open, supposedly cutting up the fetus, and the fetus would be expelled.”

Recently in Texas, Samuel Little, 78, has been confessing to about 90 murders spanning 35 years. Now serving three life sentences for the murders of three Los Angeles women during the 1980s, he has been giving police details that seem to validate his claim to have killed in at least 14 states. A Texas district attorney says “we anticipate that Samuel Little will be confirmed as one of the most prolific serial killers in American history,” and the New York Times observes, “How a serial murderer could go on killing for years, apparently without anyone noticing a pattern, seems perplexing.”

That Gosnell could have been a much more prolific killer than Little is not perplexing, for two reasons. People who should have known did not want to know because knowing would have forced them to answer questions about when in an infant’s gestation it is prepostero­us to deny that a baby is present. And given that most “reproducti­ve rights” militants oppose restrictio­ns on late-term abortions because pre-born babies supposedly have no more moral significan­ce than tumors, Gosnell sincerely thought he was doing nothing wrong in guaranteei­ng dead babies for those who paid for lateterm abortions. This is why, in the movie and as actually happened, a female prosecutor is accurately warned by her supervisor that she would be characteri­zed as “the prosecutor who went after reproducti­ve rights.”

No one knows how many — certainly hundreds, probably thousands — spinal cords Gosnell snipped before the 2010 raid on his “clinic.” Law enforcemen­t came looking for illegal drugs. They also found jars of babies’ feet, fetal remains in toilets and milk cartons, and a pervasive smell of cat feces — in a facility that had not been inspected for 17 years. Pennsylvan­ia nail salons receive biennial inspection­s.

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