Nightmare on Lancaster Street

Abortion | New documentary details the house of horrors at Kermit Gosnell's abortion mill in Philadelphia
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 1/25/13, 11:08 am

When filmmakers David Altrogge and Michael Hartnett heard the Pennsylvania State Capitol would give press access to a state Senate hearing about abortionist Kermit Gosnell and his participation in eight deaths, they grabbed a camera and headed over.

Almost two years later, the two, with the help of producer Jennifer Thompson, released a 21-minute documentary called 3801 Lancaster (see video at the end of this article—viewer discretion is advised). They named the film for the address of Gosnell’s abortion mill in West Philadelphia. Using clips from the hearing, interviews with neighbors and former patients, and photos from the investigation, Altrogge said he wanted to “let the facts speak for themselves.”

And the facts are gruesome. Gosnell provided abortions for low-income and minority women in the Philadelphia area for more than 30 years. In 2010, an FBI prescription drug raid found horrific conditions inside: severed baby feet in jars, blood-stained walls, and contaminated medical instruments. Investigators found Gosnell used untrained staff to administer anesthetics, which lead to an overdose that killed a woman. He also induced labor and killed living babies by cutting their spinal cord with scissors. During the hearing, an assistant attorney said one worker played with a baby for several minutes before snipping its neck.

And Gosnell became a multimillionaire, making $10,000 to $15,000 a day performing illegal, late-term abortions. Before the FBI raid, the last time health inspectors set foot in the Women’s Medical Society was 1993. Despite multiple complaints from former Gosnell employees, the attorneys of women who were injured or died from his abortions, and doctors who suspected negligence, the Department of Health dismissed each case without an investigation.

The grand jury report said the state did not inspect the facility because “officials concluded that inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up to women’ seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased, even though, as Gosnell proved, that meant both women and babies would pay.”

Gosnell was charged with the murder of seven babies and a 41-year-old woman, Karnamaya Mongar, who died from a botched abortion in 2009. 

In 3801 Lancaster, one of the facility’s neighbors described seeing women stumbling out of Gosnell’s office looking drugged. Two former patients also spoke about their experiences. Davida Clarke said she came to Gosnell’s facility to get an abortion after she was raped. When she saw the state of the rooms and other women looking half-dead, she decided she didn’t want the abortion anymore. But she said Gosnell and the other staff held her down and put her to sleep. A few hours later she woke up and her baby was gone. She has been infertile since.

The film also interviews the leaders of the Black Pro-Life Coalition as they gathered in front of the facility. Abortion is the number one killer of African-Americans, killing more black people than all other deaths combined,” one protester said. She calls abortion a civil rights issue because abortionists continue their work mostly in minority neighborhoods. “How many black people continue to look the other way while black babies are being slaughtered by abortionists?”

Altrogge said while some were willing to speak with him, others seemed afraid. He noticed many people who lived near the facility had a lot of pride for their neighborhood and “there was a real sadness that it will be known for this.”

He said most people he approached seemed skeptical about his agenda for making the documentary. “We just want to tell the story, this is just something that we’re passionate about. … There’s just this silence about it. We feel like we can’t talk about it, that someone will be offended by this.”

But Thompson said that once people knew the details of the case, both pro-life and pro-abortion proponents agree what Gosnell did was wrong.

The documentary, now available for free online and posted at the end of this article, has been viewed more than 30,000 times since its release Jan. 14. Altrogge said they plan to follow the case as it goes to trial in March and create additional installments. They will screen the film at the Justice Film Festival in February. 

“We can read about this, watch this film, and most of the world will shake our heads and walk away and go on with our lives,” Altrogge said. “But for the people who are affected by this case, they can’t walk away from this. … It affected their lives forever.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

Read more from this writer