With all due respect, Stephen King's Doctor Sleep is not the season's most frightening book. That distinction belongs to Gosnell's Babies: Inside the Mind of America's Most Notorious Abortion Doctor by Steve Volk. Because unlike the horror master's tale, the doctor in Volk's narrative is all too real — Kermit Gosnell, the Philaldelphia abortionist who will spend the rest of his life in prison for performing illegal abortions, including some when the fetus was born alive.
Volk's just-published book is not very long; it is an expanded version of the veteran journalist's article for Philadelphia Magazine. But it is notable because he is the only journalist to have spoken with Gosnell since his incarceration earlier this year. The result is an even-handed portrait of Gosnell, free of the politics that defined his trial last spring.
"How about I play you a little Chopin?" That was how Gosnell greeted investigators who came to his cluttered West Philadelphia home in the summer of 2010. Gosnell had initially been suspected at running a "pill mill" out of his Women's Medical Society, which had been raided in February 2010. It would take another year for the full horror to come out — that his abortion clinic was rife with fetus parts, filthy instruments and cat feces, a site that investigators would describe as "very unsanitary, very outdated, horrendous." By the time he went on trial, Gosnell had become a symbol of abortion's evils for the right, while the left saw him as a cautionary tale, a lesson about abortion being increasingly driven underground.
In Volk's brisk telling, Gosnell is an intelligent young man from a striving black family in West Philadelphia. He attended Central High, where a note in the yearbook reads, "Kermit is one of the more popular members of the class. We are sure he will make a mark for himself in his chosen field of medicine."
Indeed, he would. As he tells Volk, "I did not choose abortion. Abortions chose me." He started performing abortions for women who simply could not afford having another child. Indeed, it is clear from Gosnell's correspondence with Volk — which includes some truly terrible poetry — that he sees his practice as fulfilling a social justice mission. As he wrote to Volk from prison in one of his poems:
What Chance Have Those?
Those Without The Support
Of Their Parents
This is what led Gosnell to become a disciple of illegal abortionist Harvey Karman in the early 1970's, before the Supreme Court made abortion legal in Roe v. Wade. But after Karman's experiment with "super coil" abortions — in which plastic razors shredded the fetus inside the uterus — backfired in what came to be known as the Mother's Day Massacre, Gosnell fled to the Bahamas.
As Volk describes it, when Gosnell returned to Philadelphia, his life "bifurcated" — to many in the neighborhood, he was, and still remains, the "Good Doctor" who looked out for local children and made house calls. One former patient calls him "a great man."
But then there was the Gosnell who became increasingly reckless in the reproductive care he provided. By the early 1990s, according to Volk, he perfected the gruesome technique he came to call "snipping," in which he would use scissors to make a puncture in the neck of the delivered fetus, then severing the spinal column. He had also hired a criminally inexperienced staff that administered drugs as if they were breath mints.
Volk describes the house of horrors Gosnell ran from his Lancaster Avenue clinic (pictured above): a plumber cleaning a toilet with a plunger, only to notice a human limb pop up, a dead cat infested with fleas, utterly untrained staff, patients wrapped in blankets, jars full of tiny human feet. But these are largely details that have been recounted before, particularly in the breathtakingly detailed grand jury report.
What is more interesting, and what makes this book worthwhile, is Volk's attempt to understand Gosnell without condemning him all over again, his resistance to the easy moniker of "monster." Because while he is certainly one, that's not at all how Gosnell seems himself. He blames the preponderance of Catholics — presumably, all pro-life — in the Philadelphia law enforcement community; he blames restrictive abortion laws; he blames endemic poverty. But he does not blame himself, not for the death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar in 2009, nor the seven deaths of newborns that prosecutors argued were homicides (he was found guilty of three counts).
Through it all, Gosnell remains unrepentant. "I believed my deeds were in a war against discrimination," he tells Volk, "disenfranchisement, undereducation and poverty." According to his lawyer, he is adjusting well to prison, practicing yoga and learning Spanish. He even applied for a job training young doctors, after seeing an ad in The Economist. He didn't get that one, nor another with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Kermit Gosnell isn't sure why. "Maybe it's my notoriety," he muses.
(Photo of clinic: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)