‘My baby’s remains in a cardboard box’: Irish GP’s abortion story
Politicians ‘should speak to the women who have gone through it’, says Dr Lara Kelly
Dr Lara Kelly says she is in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
An Irish GP has spoken of the trauma of returning the foetal remains of her baby from England after she was forced her to travel to Liverpool to terminate her pregnancy.
Dr Lara Kelly is one of the first members of the Irish medical profession to speak publicly about travelling to the UK for an abortion. The 35-year-old said her decision to speak out was motivated by the blocking of a Bill in the Dáil earlier this month that would have allowed for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Dr Kelly and her husband, Mark, learned in March that their baby’s brain had not developed properly, that it only had half of a heart, and that it would die shortly after birth.
After receiving confirmation from their consultant around Easter, they travelled to a Liverpool clinic, where the termination took place a fortnight before their first wedding anniversary.
Dr Kelly wanted to take the foetal remains home to be cremated, a process she described as traumatic and unfair.
“The Tottenham Hotspur football team were staying at our hotel,” Dr Kelly said. “I remember carrying the remains past the entire Spurs squad. It was the weirdest thing, walking past them and some of their fans in the packed lobby.
“There was me with my little plastic bag and the baby’s remains in a cardboard box. It was just so bizarre passing by the players with the remains of our baby under my arm.”
At Liverpool airport, Dr Kelly and her husband decided to carry the remains on to the plane, rather than have them placed in the hold, in case the luggage went missing. Passing through security brought on further trauma, she said.
“We were queuing at security for ages and I wasn’t feeling physically great after the procedure the day before,” she said. “When we got to the top we said to the security guy that we had to declare foetal remains. The guy said, ‘What?’ He didn’t seem to understand and so we said it out loud again. He didn’t know what foetal remains meant so Mark said, ‘It’s a baby in the box’, and the man said out loud, ‘A baby in the box?’ Half the queue heard that, probably some of those who were getting on our flight to Dublin heard that.”
The whole experience was an ordeal, she said. “People – from the hotel clerk to the taxi man taking us to the clinic – kept asking us what we were doing over in Liverpool. Having to avoid those questions was the start of it all feeling so unfair.
“I didn’t even let the taxi drop us right outside the clinic and instead got out before the entrance further down the road. It was all about keeping it secret and to ourselves. I wasn’t questioning what I was going to do, I just didn’t want people to know. We had to lie to people about why we were really over in Liverpool, a series of lies and I couldn’t stop. You lied because you were supposed to lie.”
Dr Kelly and her husband said they had not taken the decision to have an abortion lightly. “We discussed the termination and we felt it was absolutely the best decision for us,” she said. “This was very much a wanted baby. It was an enormous decision that we took very seriously.”
According to statistics compiled by the UK’s department of health between 1980 and 2015, at least 165,438 Irish women and girls accessed UK abortion services. Last year, the figure was 3,451.
However, the Irish Family Planning Association pointed out that these figures underestimate the real numbers, as not all women will provide Irish addresses for reasons of confidentiality. Thousands of other Irish women access abortion through pills bought online, the IFPA said.
Two incidents from Dr Kelly’s experience bore out the high numbers. When Dr Kelly found the website for the clinic in Liverpool that dealt with fatal foetal causes, she noticed there was a specific section called Travelling from Ireland.
“Bizarrely, the terminations are cheaper for women coming from Ireland because they are mindful about the costs of going over to England,” Dr Kelly said. “It shows how many Irish women use their services.”
On her way back to Dublin, Dr Kelly approached a member of staff at Liverpool airport to ask for advice about travelling with foetal remains. “The girl was Irish as it happened and she said something astonishing to me. ‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘You need to go over to the gentleman at customs and declare the remains at security. It’s fine, I did it a few weeks ago.’ That’s what she said to me. It was said with such normality because she had done it herself.”
After landing in Dublin the couple drove straight to a funeral home. Once home, Dr Kelly was upfront about her termination within her wider family, who she said supported her decision fully.
However, she said she would have preferred to have had the termination in her home city, adding: “I could have gone to my local hospital that morning, I could have been with my mum and dad recovering that night after it; in my own bed under supervision of my own doctor. I was made to get on a plane to go to a different country because I was not allowed to be here.”
Dr Kelly supports demands by pro-choice campaigners for a referendum aimed at abolishing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
Dr Kelly said her experience underlined the need to abolish the Amendment. “I would like the people of this country to have the right to vote on this. Give us our referendum. None of the people of my generation got to speak in 1983. I was 18 months old the last time this was voted on,” she said.
“As for politicians, I would say to them that I have a story and they should speak to the women who have gone through it instead of just exporting the problem.”