'I believe in a loving God and that I won't be damned for what I did'
THE PHOTOGRAPH OF the four calm, young women on this page tells us little of what had gone before. They were tired and under stress. Three had been in tears. One had taken a 5am train from the south into the offices of The Irish Times. Another had had to rush in from work.
Only hours before, each was still deciding whether to appear in this picture. Such is the silence and stigma surrounding their stories, the mere fact of revealing their real names and faces would most likely give them a place of sorts in Irish social history. The decision was not taken lightly. “But we’re just being hypocrites if we don’t,” decided Ruth Bowie, “What are we ashamed of?”
In the end, they did it because they want people to see how ordinary they are, unthreatening wives, mothers, daughters, siblings, who had never dreamt of being activists or campaigners. Their sole bond was the fact that each had had a pregnancy in which the baby was diagnosed with “an abnormality incompatible with life”, and that each had “travelled” to have that pregnancy terminated.
The four came together for the first time just a few weeks ago in Amanda Mellet’s kitchen. From that cathartic evening came a determination to raise awareness of their particular situations.
Since then, they have circularised all TDs. They are also seeking a meeting with the 14-member expert group currently studying the options on how to implement a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling that the State had violated the rights of a woman who had cancer and who said she was forced to travel abroad to obtain an abortion.
Tomorrow, facilitated by the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Socialist Party TD Clare Daly, they will walk into Leinster House, make themselves available for meetings with TDs, and watch the debate on the private members’ bill proposed to give effect to the “X” case, introduced by Daly on behalf of herself, Joan Collins of People Before Profit and the Independent TD Mick Wallace.
These four women are clear that their cases are not representative of the abortion debate as a whole. Their babies were planned and much wanted; two were already mothers, excitedly anticipating another baby; two were expecting a greatly desired first baby.
“These were terminations of babies that were incompatible with life,” Ruth Bowie stresses. As a healthcare professional, she is particularly well-informed.
Although it was her first pregnancy, it was her own instinct to leave the public-health system and seek a private scan earlier than usual. She needed no one to explain the diagnosis of anencephaly, a neural tube defect which meant the baby could not survive outside the womb.
The second great shock was the choice on offer from the consultant: continue with the pregnancy and the baby would die as soon as she was born or shortly after; or accept a referral to the Irish Family Planning Association to help with arrangements for a termination in the UK.
Bowie, a gentle, sincere woman of “very strong faith”, remembers breaking the news to her mother, also a devout Christian. “She was so shocked – not by our awful news, but by the fact that we had to travel to the UK for a termination . . . Even our own [healthcare] colleagues don’t realise that in our situation, we have to travel . . . I’ve worked in healthcare for long enough to realise that bad things happen to people everyday and that the world is simply an unfair place – but to have to travel like this? That’s cruel.
“Having to walk around Birmingham for five hours when you’ve just ended your baby’s life, you’ve had an anaesthetic and are bleeding and cramping . . . I believe in a loving, caring, understanding God and that I won’t be damned for what I did . . . I want to say to people who would judge us – Where is your compassion? Where is love in all this?,” she says, her voice cracking.
Among the other women sitting around the table and nodding sympathetically are: Arlette Lyons, who had a termination six weeks ago, after her baby was diagnosed with Patau syndrome and a cystic hygroma; Jenny McDonald (29), whose termination was on January 16th at 25 weeks, after a diagnosis of triploidy, where the baby had been diagnosed with 69 chromosomes (as against 46), had no fluid around her to protect her and no indication of kidneys; and Amanda Mellet, who was 21 weeks pregnant when her baby was diagnosed with Edwards syndrome (an abnormality caused by the presence of three, as opposed to two, copies of chromosome 18) with congenital heart defects, and a prognosis of death shortly after birth if not in the womb.
Amanda and her husband James told their story in The Irish Times on February 25th, under the pseudonyms “Rachel and Tim”. They travelled to Liverpool for a termination on December 2nd.
While small in percentage terms, these cases are not rare. One woman was told that Liverpool Women’s Hospital alone sees two to three such Irish cases a week. One Dublin maternity hospital told a patient it alone has two such diagnoses a week.
When The Irish Times invited people to share their experiences of abortion in recent weeks (published on March 24th) , such cases represented some 15 in 100 of the responses.
One woman, for example, wrote of having the feticidal injection performed in the UK, then coming back to deliver her dead baby in an Irish hospital, claiming that the baby “hadn’t moved for a few days”. Another spoke of having what she called the “A story” – the true version, to be told to family and close friends – and the “B story” – a miscarriage, to be told to everyone else.
Since such pregnancies are usually visible by the time of diagnosis (for these women, they ranged from 13 weeks to 23) and have been processed through the healthcare system, the fact of their existence cannot be concealed from friends, colleagues or family, and must also be officially recorded.
Liverpool Women’s Hospital for example, will not perform such terminations without copies of scans and medical notes from the Irish consultant verifying that the pregnancy is non-viable, so the system here is well aware of what is happening.
It is after diagnosis, however, that the Irish health system can begin to buckle under the legal constrictions surrounding abortion. While it is theoretically lawful for doctors to perform an abortion in Ireland in certain circumstances (where there is a risk to the life of a mother), in the absence of defining legislation and clear professional guidelines, it is seldom done.
Even when there is no risk to the life of a mother, as in the cases of these women, people may travel abroad for an abortion. However, Irish doctors tend to refer them to third parties, such as the Irish Family Planning Association, for information on how to go about this.
The stories women have told The Irish Times suggest Irish healthcare professionals have an inconsistent response to situations such as these. Couples seeking guidance from hospital doctors report reactions that range from hugs, compassion and a list of UK hospital contacts, to a suggestion that the woman returns for a check-up “in three weeks time” and no mention of termination.
“We fall into a category that our healthcare system chooses to ignore and worse, to stigmatise. The system should wrap its arms around you, instead it turns its back on you,” says Bowie. “It’s hard to rationalise this in a country where you can turn off someone’s life support.”
Each of these women uses similar language to describe how the system made them feel like pariahs. “My husband and I felt no shame about the decision we had made, but this journey made us feel like criminals,” says Bowie.
“It made an already traumatic experience feel infinitely worse. Moreover, we feel we missed out on important aftercare. Although we received excellent care and advice from the [Irish] maternity hospital at the time of diagnosis, there was no support available for us before the termination or, crucially, after it.”
Even the most loving families and friends (and these women certainly had that support), they say, cannot fill the need for others who can truly empathise, those with personal experience.
Arlette Lyons “Googled her life away” seeking support groups. Amanda Mellet’s need to grieve is still being over-ridden by anger at being forced to travel. Jenny McDonald’s friend Kelley – an AE nurse in a London hospital – has travelled over this week to support her though a landmark date.
The fact that these women have found each other is a significant step. Tomorrow, having stepped out as named individuals, they are aware of some of the pitfalls that may await them.
They know, for example, that being categorised with “pro-choice” groups could lose them support; thus the emphasis in the website’s name – “for medical reasons”.
They are also aware of the risk of being used as political pawns. “Sinn Féin are all over it but I don’t want them using this for a platform,” says Arlette Lyons emphatically.
Ruth Bowie nods vigorously: “I don’t want this to be a political issue. I see it as a human-rights issue.”
The story behind this story
In February, The Irish Times published a story of a couple, “Rachel and Tim”, who had terminated a much-wanted pregnancy after their unborn baby was diagnosed with Edwards syndrome.
We invited people who had experienced abortion to share their stories with us. Following a broad response, we published several of them in March.
Now, Amanda Mellet and her husband James, or “Rachel and Tim”, are part of a group seeking to change the abortion laws in Ireland.
Support group forum: