How to Get Away With Murder

Review: Ann McElhinney & Phelim McAleer, 'Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer'

The Philadelphia abortion clinic run by serial killer Kermit Gosnell until his arrest / AP
February 18, 2017

The two clearest moral exemplars of the past thirty years have both been doctors: Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Dr. Kermit Gosnell. Moral here means immoral, of course. Negatives on the moral scale, these doctors illustrate better than anyone else the cracks and flaws in the façade of contemporary social ethics. Want to be a killer, get away with murder? Kevorkian and Gosnell are your models.

Not that they escaped entirely. The suicide-facilitator Kevorkian was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and served eight years in prison before his release in 2007. The abortionist Gosnell is currently serving life without parole after his 2013 murder convictions. But before they were finally stopped, they had highly successful careers in death. The Zodiac Killer is confirmed to have killed five. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17. Ted Bundy claimed 30. Meanwhile, working in the open, Dr. Kevorkian managed what his lawyer has said were 130 deaths, and Dr. Gosnell killed hundreds of newborns, snipping their spines after chemically inducing labor in their mothers during the late stages of pregnancy.

In Gosnell, the husband-and-wife team of filmmaker Ann McElhinney and crime reporter Phelim McAleer call Gosnell "America's most prolific serial killer," but Kevorkian at least belongs somewhere in the discussion. Yes, they were both serial killers in the obvious and primary sense that they killed serially. The key for both of them, however, is that they had the secondary characteristics of serial killers, as well.

So, for example, Kevorkian showed an interest in death from the earliest days of his medical training, proposing transfusions from corpses and the vivisection of condemned prisoners. He was fascinated by the moment of death, and the suicide machines he invented allowed him to witness the passing to which he had guided his depressed patients. He reveled in his nickname, "Doctor Death."

Kermit Gosnell manifested even more clearly those well-documented secondary characteristics. He escalated his sociopathic behavior over time, the way serial killers often do. He kept trophies of his kills. With his supposed "academic interest" in the clitorectomies of his African immigrant patients, he showed a perverse sexual fascination that paralleled his murders. And he looked to the weakest, most vulnerable segments of the population to find his victims.

Kevorkian and Gosnell shared one more characteristic: They both posed as champions of the very people they abused. Like the killers who once used the rules of dueling to indulge their murderous impulses, these doctors saw that the legal culture of the age was allowing the private use of lethal force—and even applauding its practitioners. And so they dove in, using despondency and pregnancy as occasions for their serial-killing sprees.

Pro-abortion activists often insist that a fetus isn't a human being. Dr. Gosnell knew different. The unborn child had to be a child, else what satisfaction could he find in killing it? Meanwhile, Kevorkian had a financial sideline as a euthanasia activist, paid to deliver lectures on the higher morality of putting suffering people to sleep. Careful reporting by the Detroit Free Press, however, showed that more than half of those Kevorkian helped commit suicide were not terminally ill, and many had never even complained of pain. He used his patients' desire for death as an opportunity to murder them, and then went out to argue for their right to die.

Why did Kevorkian and Gosnell get away with their killings for so many years? Primarily because these murderers were protected by an enabling social politics. Kevorkian died in 2011, but even after all the revelations about his Doctor Death persona, he still has defenders. He should never have been sent to jail, they insist, and his prosecutions were the result of a political witch hunt conducted by the religious right. The truth, however, is that Kevorkian was helped by politics. Murder charges would have piled up against anyone else present at, or involved in, so many deaths. But Kevorkian was allowed to continue—even praised for continuing—because he was clever enough to re-label his killing as an anti-religious-right campaign to help suffering people.

At least Gosnell has no defenders left. After the graphic details in the 261-page report from the grand jury that indicted him in 2011, it's hard to imagine who could defend him. As I noted in the Weekly Standard at the time, the grand jury was outraged by a Philadelphia clinic sticky with the remains of old placenta and fetuses. The offices reeked of urine and feces from the cats that wandered through the building. "Furniture and blankets were stained with blood," the grand jury wrote. "Instruments were not properly sterilized. Disposable medical supplies ... were reused, over and over again. Medical equipment ... was generally broken; even when it worked, it wasn't used. ... And scattered throughout, in cabinets, in the basement, in a freezer, in jars and bags and plastic jugs, were fetal remains. It was a baby charnel house."

The most interesting part, however, may be that it wasn't his illegal abortions but drugs that finally brought the police to Dr. Gosnell's door. (He was one of the top Oxycontin providers in Pennsylvania, leaving signed prescription blanks for his assistants to give anyone able to afford his consultation fee.) Many people knew the appalling conditions of his Philadelphia clinic, and several complaints had been filed with state and local agencies. But when the drug investigators raided his offices and discovered his abortion trophies and medical abuses, he hadn't been visited by a medical examiner for 17 years.

The politics of abortion is what protected him. In 1995, Tom Ridge became governor of Pennsylvania, replacing the pro-life Bob Casey, and the Department of Health abruptly stopped inspecting abortion clinics, declaring that inspections would be "putting a barrier up" that might prevent women from getting abortions. Fearing that opponents of abortion would use inspections to limit access, activists insisted that abortion clinics be exempt from ordinary medical oversight—and in that gap, Gosnell found the space to practice his serial killing in Philadelphia. He was even lauded by various local organizations as a devoted doctor who was aiding the poor with abortion services. Like Kevorkian, Gosnell was allowed to continue because, for his enablers, opposing the religious right was more important than protecting the vulnerable from murderous predators.

Written in the style of true-crime books, McElhinney and McAleer's Gosnell is too thin to be a great entry in a genre with classic works from the likes of Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Rule. The authors can't determine how many babies born alive Gosnell killed, for example, and they spend too much time on the ins and outs of the man's trial, when the verdict was never in much doubt. Still, McElhinney and McAleer did manage to get an interview with Gosnell in prison, and the description they give of his strange demeanor helps prove that the man really was a serial killer, enjoying the killing of his abortions from the beginning. Gosnell was "very, very greedy," the trial judge said in an interview, but the piles of cash he left lying around his home and office suggest that financial gain was a minor motive. The sense of getting away with murder was what he really liked.

When McElhinney and McAleer proposed making a movie about Gosnell, crowd sourcing quickly provided the money needed. The completed film should be coming soon, though the two report that they are having trouble finding a distributor. And yet, I'm not sure what we can learn from the movie that we don't already know. Gosnell devotes an entire chapter to the reporting, and lack of reporting, about the case back in 2011, and the reader will quickly realize how politicized it all was. The reception of McElhinney and McAleer's book has been equally politicized. Reaction to the forthcoming movie will, no doubt, prove much the same.

The politics of abortion, however, are what enabled Dr. Gosnell, just as the politics of euthanasia enabled Dr. Kevorkian. The licensing of private lethal force, missing in the culture after the elimination of dueling, has returned with abortion and euthanasia. We can legally kill, and wherever that's true, some people will kill, reveling in the fact that they're getting away with murder.

Published under: Abortion , Book reviews