Kathy Sheridan : Wallace abortion bill flawed but foot-dragging must stop

In the last four years more than 300 couples have got a catastropic diagnosis and the majority will have made the decision to “travel”

It is four years since four young women agreed to have their pictures taken for The Irish Times and in doing so, crossed a peculiarly Irish Rubicon.

The exhausted faces and tearful, hollow eyes of Amanda Mellet, Ruth Bowie, Arlette Lyons and Jenny McDonald, conveyed just a hint of the agony entailed in that decision. Right up to the last minute, each was still wrestling with being identified in a national newspaper. All they wanted to do was show how ordinary they were, how unthreatening. Wives, mothers, daughters and siblings with their tired faces and workaday clothes, with a single bond: each had experienced a longed-for but tragic pregnancy, in which the foetus had been diagnosed with "an abnormality incompatible with life" and each had "travelled", as that great Irish euphemism has it. Such was the silence and stigma surrounding their stories, they knew that merely revealing their real names and faces would give them a place of sorts in Irish social history. "But we're just being hypocrites if we don't," decided Ruth Bowie, a soft-spoken paediatric nurse and believer in "a loving, caring, understanding God". "What are we ashamed of? . . . We fall into a category that our healthcare system chooses to ignore and worse, to stigmatise . . . It's hard to rationalise this in a country where you can turn off someone's life support. . ."

Effective advocates

In the meantime, they have become some of the most effective advocates in any field, building an association, repeating their profoundly distressing stories over and over, explaining what it means to feel like criminals and pariahs in their own country.

Here is what they did NOT do. 1. They never attempted to sanitise the process of termination. Read the unflinching account of "Rachel and Tim" – pseudonyms for Amanda Mellet and her husband James – published in The Irish Times in February 2012. The euphemisms, they noted, came from hospital staff. No-one used the word "abortion", Amanda said, "the consultant used the word 'terminate' ". As for the tortuous language around their "choices", "the language always used was 'if you choose to travel'," said James, as if it was "a bloody holiday". 2. They did not self-diagnose. Their information came from medical specialists. Nurse Ruth Bowie's instinct was so finely tuned she left the public health system to seek an early private scan. When the diagnosis came, she understood all too well the implications of anencephaly, a neural tube defect.


In Arlette Lyons’s case, the diagnosis was Patau syndrome and a cystic hygroma. Jenny McDonald’s was triploidy where the baby had been diagnosed with 69 chromosomes (as against 46). For Amanda, the verdict was Edwards’ syndrome, with congenital heart defects. “There were so many other problems . . . fluid was developing in her body”, said James at the time. But they were just medical opinions, of course, and we live in a time when one opinion – however ignorant or distorted – is deemed as good as another.

If a man currently aspiring to be prime minister reckons that Britain “has had enough of experts” why shouldn’t a member of the hierarchy disagree with an expert diagnosis? “The word ‘fatal’ is misleading since there is no medical evidence, none whatsoever, where a doctor can predict, with certainty, the lifespan of babies before they are born,” said one. Yet here they were, those medical “experts”, doing just that. 3. They did not claim to know precise numbers of Irish citizens who “travelled” following this diagnosis. The poignancy of those early interviews was underlined by their sense of isolation. Anecdotal evidence was all they had. “Fewer than 50 abortions per year,” was the breezy conclusion of one anti-choice campaigner, who concluded : “It seems that more than 90 per cent of Irish mothers or families facing this devastating news do not abort their babies.” She was about right on the abortion count. According to the master of the Rotunda Hospital, 49 couples made the decision to “travel” last year. On the other hand, 71 cases were actually diagnosed, which means some 65 per cent made the decision to “travel”.

Real life

The intention here is not to score points. The subject is far too sensitive and distressing for that – or should be. But in real life, in the 217 weeks since that first picture appeared, more than 300 couples have received that catastrophic diagnosis and the majority will have made the decision to “travel”.

Meanwhile, in the face of that profound human suffering, we seem to have all the time in the world to meditate on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Yes, rules around collective Cabinet responsibility and discipline are important. Yes, Mick Wallace’s Bill is controversial and probably unconstitutional and may be entirely counterproductive. But, crucially, it conveyed a sense of urgency.

The foot-dragging is palpable. A sense of urgency is the least we owe those women and men.