Ann McElhinney: Abortion campaigners should be careful about what they wish for

Bringing abortion out of the shadows also involves being honest about what is involved

We were always fairly disinterested in abortion. And by “disinterested” we mean we never thought much about it but, when we did, believed it was an unfortunate but probably necessary part of modern life.

And as such we would have agreed with those who have called in The Irish Times and elsewhere for more honesty and openness about abortion in the belief it would lead to a more liberal abortion regime in Ireland.

However, our recent experience would suggest that campaigners might want to rethink this strategy if they want Irish people to support a campaign to repeal the eighth amendment.

We are making a movie and writing a book about Dr Kermit Gosnell – described by ABC News as "America's biggest serial killer". Gosnell was a Pennsylvania abortion doctor who performed illegal abortions past the state's 24-week limit. His abortion "technique" was to have the babies born alive and then to stab them to death with scissors.


His case led many people, investigators, lawyers and jury members to hear for the first time the reality of abortion, illegal and legal, and how it affected them might surprise those calling for more honesty surrounding the procedure.

A pro-choice prosecutor told us how she and her female co-worker were amazed that the legal limit in Pennsylvania was 24 weeks: “That’s six months” she remembers blurting out as they read the statue for the first time. Then they discovered that PA was not an outlier.

In several US states you can have, and people do have, abortions up to the day of delivery.

But the evidence that shocked the most was the evidence that was supposed to reassure the most.

To highlight Gosnell’s illegality, prosecutors decided the jury should hear from “good abortionists”.

In other words just what those campaigning to repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution are demanding – an open, honest and under-oath detailed description of what goes on during state-of-the-art legal abortion.

It was the industrial scale of the abortion industry that shocked the jury first. They gasped (the only time during a horrific trial) when Dr Charles Benjamin matter-of-factly stated he had performed over 40,000 abortions.

An arm or a leg


Karen Feisullin

was also called to describe what a legal abortion looked like. The jury and many in the courtroom shifted uncomfortably as they heard about “tools going up into the uterus and basically pulling parts out . . . an arm or a leg or some portion of that”.

And those were the easy, early abortions. For later procedures, Dr Feisullin explained the foetus was so well-formed that it couldn’t be ripped apart in the uterus. It was normally removed – through the birth canal – completely intact. But, as Feisullin explained, a baby born at 23 weeks has a 40-50 per cent chance of surviving. To avoid a live baby coming out during an abortion, the doctor demonstrated how, before the abortion, a poison – potassium chloride – was injected through the woman’s stomach directly into the baby’s heart. This would stop the heartbeat, allowing the foetus to be pulled out intact.

Dr Feisullin was asked what would happen if she missed the heart and the baby was born alive.

She explained that the live baby would be covered with a blanket and given “comfort care”.

You could see the genuine puzzlement of people in the court about what “comfort care” was until Dr Feisullin cleared up any confusion.

“You . . . really just keep it warm, you know. It will eventually pass,” she said.

Steve Volk, a Philadelphia-based journalist for an alternative newspaper who described himself as comfortably pro-choice before the trial, said that, as Dr Feisullin spoke, his fellow reporters all checked if they had heard correctly.

Dehydration and neglect

Was it really standard medical practice to let a baby die of dehydration and neglect if an error was made during an abortion? It was and they were shocked.

Local journalist JD Mullane, who interviewed many of the key players, confirmed our research that the trial changed many minds and shook assumptions.

“Almost everyone . . . who spent significant time at the Gosnell trial was less pro-choice at the end. This change was probably because they were for the first time hearing about the reality of abortion from experts under oath . . .

“They had to tell the truth and they had to tell it in detail,” he said.

Out of the shadows

Those seeking to remove the constitution ban on abortion believe the best way to do it is to bring it out of the shadows in the hope that when people hear the details, they will support the liberalisation of abortion in Ireland.

Two years ago, we might have agreed with them.

But our experience of the Gosnell case is that anyone who has learned more about the reality of abortion – the pulling apart of the foetus, the injecting of poison into the heart, the “comfort care” – has come away with only negative feelings about the procedure.

It may be a case of be careful what you wish for.

Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are journalists and a husband and wife film-making team based in Los Angeles