Ann McElhinney: Making a film about abortion in the US opened my eyes

Listening to why people chose an abortion and what the procedure involved shocked me

Working on the movie and book about Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor convicted of murder, I acquired a swift education on abortion, legal and illegal. Most of what I have learned was news to me and appears to be absent from the abortion debate in Ireland.

In Pennsylvania, the legal limit for abortion is six months. Lawyers and jurors in the case told me they were shocked it was so late. I was even more surprised to learn that in some US states abortion is legal up to nine months. The sheer volume of abortions also surprised: more than 50 million since Roe vs Wade, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Dr Charles Benjamin told the Gosnell trial he had performed 40,000 abortions in a 33-year career.

I interviewed Julie W a nurse for 20 years at the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado. She told me how a middle-class, nicely dressed, happily married couple in their late twenties, came in. They wanted children but explained they had "become concerned" after discovering they were pregnant with twins. They did their research, discussed it with friends and decided twins "wouldn't suit them". They had an abortion.


Family big enough

Then there's the story of Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood in the US. She earns $600,000 (€539,300) a year and is, by her own account, happily married. Ms Richards has three children and when pregnant with her fourth she and her husband decided to have an abortion. "We have three children we adore and that are the centre of my life. And we decided that was as big as our family needed to be. That was really the story. It wasn't anything more dramatic than that," Richards said in an interview.

As part of my journey I sat for a morning listening to George Zallie, a heartbroken New Jersey father, describe how his 20-year-old daughter Stacy killed herself a year after having an abortion. In her note she said she wanted to be in heaven with her baby.

In Oklahoma City I met Tessa Whatley, a young African-American woman. A few years ago Tessa was in a local clinic, lying on the procedure table about to have an abortion when a nurse went against regulations.

“The nurse . . . let me hear the heartbeat of my baby. That is something they are not supposed to do. So as I lay there for about, maybe, four or five minutes I just started crying, I decided that it was just something I couldn’t do. I couldn’t kill my baby,” she told me.

The process

I have also learned a lot of the details of the actual abortion process. D&E (dilation and evacuation) is used for second and third trimester abortions. During Gosnell's trial Dr Karen Feisullin, a respected abortion provider, wanted the jury to understand what a proper abortion was like. This is part of that testimony.

McMahon: “From what I’ve seen, and you can correct me, you obviously know more about it than I do, the evacuation process can be one where tools are used and the pieces are pulled out; right?

Dr Feisullin: “Right.”

McMahon: “And you might pull out an arm or a leg or some portion of that?”

Dr Feisullin: “Right.”

With larger babies it is necessary to deliver the baby breached and then suction the brain. Dr Feisullin told the jury, “A suction catheter is inserted at the base of the skull to remove the contents of the head because the head is the largest part of the body that sometimes get stuck and the brain is suctioned out, grey matter is suctioned out, the skull collapses and it comes out easily.”

Early abortions are no less gorey. In these early abortions a suction machine is used. The suction machine uses the same principle as a vacuum cleaner. It is then the job of a junior assistant to empty the jars that fill when the machine is turned on. Assistants need to reconstruct the baby from the contents of the jar to ensure that all the pieces have been removed. Any baby parts left behind could become infected and cause toxic shock. They literally have to find two arms, two legs and the rest and put all the pieces together.

Clinics either have a hose run from the procedure room to another room or, if the jars are in the same room, they shroud the jar with a cloth so that the pregnant woman cannot see the contents.


Before I started on the Gosnell project I didn’t have an opinion on abortion, I was neutral. I appreciate the sentiments of those who think Ireland should have abortion. But they have to know that for every fatal-foetal-abnormality case there are many more cases of people who abort twins because they are inconvenient, abort girls because their culture does not value them or, like Cecile Richards, because they have an idea what an ideal family is and another child would spoil that ideal.

There will also be bans on nurses letting people listen to heartbeats or seeing ultrasounds and people whose work days consist of putting together the arms and legs of some women’s choices.

Ireland should vote knowing all that happens in a country where abortion is legal.

Ann McElhinney, an Irish filmmaker and journalist based in Los Angeles, is the key note speaker at the Pro Life Campaign National Conference in the RDS on Saturday (