By Sally Hayden
At 16 weeks into her pregnancy, Lily, 35, found out that her baby had a fatal fetal abnormality and — once born — would survive only hours outside the womb.
“We really wanted the baby,” she told VICE News, recalling how “shell-shocked” the discovery made her.Unluckily for Lily she was living in Ireland, where abortion — in almost every situation — is considered a crime. She was given the opportunity to either carry the baby to term, or to travel to an NHS hospital in the UK to have an early induction. “I think I was quite shocked at that point to know that that couldn’t be dealt with in my own maternity hospital here. It’s the worst possible news you can get. Devastating,” she told VICE News.
Accompanied by her partner, Lily went for a despondent walk on a Dublin beach where “we made our decision quite quickly.”
Carrying to term would have been “impossible,” she said. “It’s not something you can hide, when you’re pregnant and people are asking about the baby: Are you excited? Is it a boy or a girl? Is it your first?”
Lily turned to internet searches for advice on what to do next. In the end she opted for a medical termination, as she wanted to “spend time with the baby afterwards.”
“We flew to Liverpool on a Sunday night, and neither of us had ever been in Liverpool before. We got a taxi from the airport to our hotel, and then the following morning we were in the hospital at 8am.”
All in all it cost Lily and her partner around 3,000 euros ($3,360) — including flights, accommodation, and the hospital fee. The baby was born on Tuesday afternoon. “I didn’t see the baby until that night at almost midnight,” she said. At that stage he was in a “cold cot” — he had already died. “We got to spend that night with him in the hospital.”
Then they flew back to Ireland. “Leaving him behind,” she said, “was very, very difficult. We flew home and I remember the plane leaving the tarmac, that was very, very difficult.”
One month later, the ashes were couriered to them in an envelope — “a normal, slightly dirty envelope,” is how she described it.
Lily still hasn’t told most of her family and friends what happened to her.
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Traditionally conservative and Catholic Ireland made global headlines when it legalized gay marriage last month. Hordes of people took to the streets to celebrate what they saw as a leap into a more liberal and tolerant society. But that society still has limits.
Ireland has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws — even in cases of rape or incest, and cases of severe and fatal fetal impairment, termination is not allowed.
The eighth amendment of the Irish constitution gives the life of an “unborn” child equal status to the “right to life of the mother.” Those who challenge the law can end up involved in distressing litigation which can involve different legal teams being produced to represent both the mother and the unborn baby separately.
Related: Ireland Just Became the First Country to Approve Gay Marriage by a Popular Vote
An Amnesty International report released on Tuesday said Ireland’s abortion law meant the country was not fulfilling its international obligations under human rights law. Restrictive abortion laws “violate women’s and girls’ rights to life, health, privacy, non-discrimination, and freedom from torture and other ill-treatment,” it said.
Many people in Ireland felt that the government would be shamed into action after the death of Indian-born dentist Savita Halappanavar on October 28, 2012. Though there was a clear threat to her life and she was already suffering a miscarriage, Halappanavar was told by a doctor that the Galway hospital couldn’t perform an abortion because “under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied so long as there’s a fetal heart[beat].”
Her death from septicemia provoked nationwide protests. Yet the resulting change in the law — allowing abortion when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy itself or when suicidal impulses can be undeniably proven — has changed little, with some healthcare workers saying it has in fact made things worse.
Last summer Ireland’s abortion law again hit the headlines, when a foreign national — pregnant through rape and claiming to be suicidal — was denied a termination and force-fed before being given a cesarean section 25 weeks into her pregnancy.
Instead of being treated at home, somewhere between 10 and 12 women still make the journey to the UK every day to receive an abortion according to Amnesty, but those are only the individuals who can afford it. Many of the marginalized, including those without the financial resources, minors in the care of the state, and migrants with visa issues, have no access to travel.
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Cerys, in her 30s, discovered early in her pregnancy that her fetus had Edwards’ Syndrome — meaning the baby wouldn’t survive for long outside her womb and would be born in terrible pain. “We had two children already, two boys, and we had to consider all our options, including the effects it would have on them to bring a baby into the world. Basically I’d lose a bit of myself, and we’d be left with a funeral,” she told VICE News.
Late on a Sunday evening Cerys flew from Dublin to Liverpool for a termination. She was in hospital for 7am on Monday and left the UK again the same day. “In my head I have no doubt we did the right thing, as difficult as it was,” she said, though added: “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of him.”
Cerys said she used to be opposed to abortion in any circumstance but her experience had totally changed her opinion. “Who am I to judge what [someone else]does?” she said. “How naive and judgmental was I, and who am I to think that about someone else’s situation, it’s none of my business… Even if they are young or aren’t ready or just can’t give that baby a good life.”
“It’s such a taboo subject, and people tend not to speak about it,” she said. “The more we keep [talking about]it, the more likely they are to listen and do to something. They have to.”
Cerys told VICE News that she had been trying to conceive since her termination, “but I can’t and I nearly think it’s a psychological thing for me.”
The current law, she said is not so much a “Catholic thing,” but more that the problem is so hidden and that “people are stuck in their ways.” She added: “I do think if there was a referendum for fatal fetal disorders it would get passed.”
“I know it’s not going to be this year or next year, but maybe the year after, or however long it takes. For women not to have to go through this.”
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One of the organizations that provides Irish women with terminations in the UK is the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
“The scale is massive,” Donagh Stenson, a marketing director at BPAS, told VICE News. “From our perspective, 50 years on the most distressing thing is things seem to have gotten worse for Irish women, not better.”
Stenson said that is mainly because of the new legislation. “Everything that has gone on over the last few years has just demonized it even further. The whole stigma about traveling to England for abortion is heightened by the fact that all these awful things have happened in Ireland and are forcing women underground.”
In 2013, BPAS took out a full-page advert in the Irish Times that read: “We’ll care for your women until your government does.”
That message still stands, Stenson confirmed, adding: “Ireland — it needs to sort itself out.”
BPAS — which offers Irish citizens a discount — sees at least three Irish women each day, according to Stenson. However, she also noted that they have never been visited by an Irish politician.
“What is hugely frustrating is that you have politicians who legislate on behalf of Irish women and yet they don’t actually come and see these women treated in this country, or they don’t go through the processes that these women have to go through,” she noted, “and we think we’re well placed to give these women a voice.”
Stenson said that no Irish politicians had ever visited any of BPAS’s centers, adding: “We’d be willing for any politicians to come visit our clinics, absolutely.”
Related: A Legal Loophole Has Legalized Ecstasy in Ireland — Until Thursday
In the clinics, particularly in Liverpool, Stenson said Irish women were easy to spot. “Women from Ireland, they’ve got to get in and get out quite quickly without being noticed, or they’ll come at the weekend to make it look like they’re doing some kind of shopping expedition or something.”
“Many women will come on their own because of the costs that are involved, and that’s not nice either. You can’t afford to bring your support person with you,” she noted. “It takes them away from the people they need to lean on at that time.”
Stenson then listed the barriers that Irish women were facing, including “the additional stigma that comes from being brought up in a nation that believes that abortion’s wrong, and then you have all the additional stuff about the organization of it, finding flights, [going]to a city that you’ve probably never been to before, [finding]the money, which is no small thing in some circumstances, present at a clinic [where]you have no idea what it’s going to be like.”
“If you go talk to any of our clinic staff, the utter despair they express — they cannot believe that still, 50 years on, Irish women are having to make that journey.”
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“I wasn’t the one who was pregnant,” Gerry Edwards, 44, told VICE News while recounting his family’s story. “I could go to work and have no one know that I was expecting a baby.”
In 2001, Gerry and his wife Gaye went for their first scan at 20 weeks, when they were told that the fetus wouldn’t survive outside the womb. “Gaye was suffering much more because she could feel the movements inside of her but knew that he would never live,” Gerry remembered.
“We really believed that [our situation]was a freak occurrence that had happened to us and nobody else, and [the hospital staff]didn’t do anything to change that impression in us,” he went on. “They just said they would monitor us, and possibly the baby would die before full term, in which case they would deliver… And they said ‘that’s all we can do for you in this jurisdiction,’ and then left us to leave the hospital on our own. We got no information, no help.”
The couple made plans to travel to Belfast in Northern Ireland, in February 2001, where terminations were available at the time.
“After we delivered Joshua we had to leave him behind,” Gerry continued. “He was cremated without us being there, and his ashes were delivered to us by courier in an envelope with a Royal Mail stamp. And we had no funeral either, so you’re denied the normal grieving process. You’re made to feel like what you did was wrong.”
Before June that year, Gaye was already pregnant again, “and that couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made the choice that I did.”
Related: Abortion Rights in Ireland
The couple have since met many more people who have been through similar situations, and are now campaigning with the group Termination For Medical Reasons. Gaye, 51, told VICE News that the debate needs to be had as soon as possible. “The Irish electorate is more sophisticated than the political establishment gives them credit for.”
She continued: “Any discussion around abortion is going to be very divisive, and there’s a very vocal, very small but very well-funded minority who strenuously object to any changes. In fact, they think that what we have at the moment is too liberal.”
However, Gaye said it has taken years for her to be able to speak openly about what happened to her and Gerry. “You’re very raw for quite some time afterwards.”
On those who argue against any change in the law, Gerry was quite clear in his opinion. “Those objections will usually come from people who just haven’t walked in our shoes and are incapable of empathizing with our situation,” he said. “And we shouldn’t have to defend ourselves to them. The fact that it’s a crime here really stigmatizes the whole process and makes it more difficult to talk about it.” – Vice News
By Sally Hayden