The Philadelphia Police and FBI raided the 3801 Lancaster building looking for evidence of illegal prescription drugs sales, but what they found would later be described as a house of horrors.
Policemen and detectives who first arrived to inspect the chaotic clinic saw clutter everywhere, missing ceiling tiles, dried blood on the floor, frozen fetal remains and a heavy “chemical smell”, almost like a morgue, said one officer. “This was different than any job we’ve ever handled,” said another.
The documentary 3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy tells of the life and criminal trial of Dr Kermit Gosnell, who ran the Women’s Medical Society, as he called his clinic.
Though the message of the film is inherently pro-life, the details of the case are relayed without bias through the eyes of a Philadelphia crime reporter, Philadelphia policemen and former Gosnell patients. The film stays away from being too graphic or heavy-handed.
Gosnell, now 74, was arrested in 2011 and charged with seven counts of infanticide for snipping the spines of babies born alive during illegal late-term abortions. Pennsylvania law prohibits abortions after 24 weeks of gestation. He also was charged with one count of murder in the case of a woman from Virginia who died during an abortion.
In 2013, Gosnell was convicted on three counts of murder in the deaths of the babies and also was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of the Virginia woman. He is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Interspersed between testimonies and facts of the case, the film follows the journey of former Gosnell patient Desiree Manning as she travels to testify against the doctor. When she was too far along to get an abortion at a clinic in Hagerstown, Maryland, Manning was referred to Gosnell, who was known for performing late-term abortions. She shares her story with the hope that nothing like this ever happens again.
Manning and several other women spoke in the film of the callous, painful and physically harmful treatment they received at the hands of Gosnell.
“By the time we made it to my house, my car and clothes were totally bloody,” said one girl, whose face intentionally was hidden in shadows. One young woman tearfully told the camera, “As a child, I was taught that police and firefighters and doctors are people you can trust. You can’t even trust them anymore.” As a result of her abortion, she will no longer be able to have children, like many of the women Gosnell treated.
The most chilling part of the film is the phone interviews with Gosnell from prison. While speaking to the filmmakers, he calmly defended his decision to snip the necks of potentially viable unborn babies. At the end, he reads a poem he wrote about the importance of abortion doctors, who he said save society from unwanted children, and save the children themselves from lives of crime, drug addiction and prison.
When the policemen and detective see the dead babies at the clinic, they seem to realise perhaps for the first time that a fetus is not just tissue. “I didn’t think they would look as human as they did,” said one policeman of the 45 unborn babies they recovered from the clinic. “They look like my two little girls.”
Throughout the film, clips of the grand jury testimony are shown on the screen, revealing the decades-long failure of Pennsylvania state officials to shut down or even inspect Gosnell’s clinic. From the clinic’s opening in 1979 to 1993, the facility was inspected only three times; multiple violations were found, though no one followed up to ensure they were corrected. Soon, however, the clinic was subject to no examinations at all. According to grand jury testimony, “With the change of administration from Governor (Bob) Casey to Governor (Tom) Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up to women’ seeking abortions.” Still complaints came pouring in.
“A doctor from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia hand-delivered a complaint, advising the department that numerous patients he had referred for abortions came back from Gosnell with the same venereal disease (from unsterilised equipment),” the grand jury report said.
“The medical examiner of Delaware County informed the department that Gosnell had performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year-old girl carrying a 30-week-old baby,” it said. “And the department received official notice that a woman named Karnamaya Mongar had died at Gosnell’s hands. Yet not one of these alarm bells – not even Mrs Mongar’s death – prompted the department to look at Gosnell or the Women’s Medical Society.”
Several of Gosnell’s employees, all of whom were unlicensed, were charged with various crimes. No one in the Pennsylvania Department of Health or Department of State has been charged, according to information read at the close of the film.
As the grand jury said, “We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of colour, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”