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'Our Poor Little Baby Was Gone': The Irish Women Forced to Have Stillborn Births

Among those fighting to legalize abortion in Ireland is a small group of women who were diagnosed with fatal fetal abnormalities during pregnancy. They claim that the government is essentially forcing women to carry out their doomed pregnancies.

by Eve Simmons
Mar 10 2016, 5:30pm

Illustration by Marie Isabelle Marbella

Over the last five years, almost 25,000 pregnant women have travelled from their homes in Ireland to terminate their pregnancies. With the Eighth Amendment criminalizing abortion in all cases (unless the mother's life is at risk) entrenched in legislation, women face prison if they abort a fetus in their home country.

But what happens if your pregnancy is not as expected? What about the thousands of women who learn that, no matter what happens during the next 40 weeks, their baby will die? And what if this news comes later than roughly halfway through the pregnancy—the point where, chances are, in order to terminate, you'll go into labour and give birth to a stillborn baby?

If you're unlucky enough to be one such woman in Ireland, choice is non-existent: Getting an abortion and cutting short the journey to inevitable heartbreak is strictly forbidden. Unless, of course, you leave the country.

Jennifer O'Kelly made the 167-mile journey to the UK from her hometown of Dublin in 2012. The surgical procedure is painful and lengthy. First comes an internal injection to stop the baby's heartbeat, followed by either a vaginal or caesarian birth.

For those to travel to terminate a fatal pregnancy, the worst part is the six-hour drive home. O'Kelly's car journey proved especially unbearable, largely due to the addition of one particular passenger. In the back seat of the car lay baby Jess. Born—and died—at a hospital in Liverpool just 24 hours earlier.

Read More: Does Ireland Think Abortion Is Worse Than Heroin?

"We wanted to bring her home," says O'Kelly. "It was very important that she had a funeral, so we could have a Catholic priest do a funeral for her—we even had a naming ceremony. She was a very blessed baby."

Amongst the swarms of campaigners taking on the Eighth Amendment are a group of conservative-leaning women, most of whom only support abortion in very specific, rare circumstances. For Irish mothers of babies with fatal fetal abnormalities, forced to continue with a doomed pregnancy until the bitter end, this fight is personal.

Those who remain in Ireland face a full-term pregnancy filled with excruciating pain and essentially, the longest waiting game in the world. Terrified of the inevitable congratulatory messages, O'Kelly confined herself to the four walls of her house for the entire duration of her fatal pregnancy.

"[The baby] had no kidneys, her lungs weren't working and her head was filled with fluid. We had no idea how much pain she could feel and I just didn't know what to say to people," says O'Kelly. "My organs were pressurized and banging together, it was so painful. Carrying on would've just been barbaric."

Her sonographer didn't detect the fetal abnormality until her 22-week scan. It'd been a run-of-the-mill pregnancy with no complications of note, so when the couple were asked to pop out of the sonogram room for half an hour, O'Kelly questioned nothing.

"We went away for a cup of tea and came back to find the consultant in the room. Then, it was pure silence." O'Kelly's consultant informed her that her eagerly awaited little girl was suffering from an extreme form of spina bifida, as well as organ failure and a fatal amount of excess fluid drowning her skull.

I have a very strong faith in God, but I don't think he has damned me for what I did.

Although genetic tests revealed that this wasn't a chromosomal fault, the obstetrician made no bones about the extent of the condition. With no kidneys, a set of malfunctioning lungs, and severe brain damage, the pregnancy was doomed. Baby Jess could just about survive in the womb, maybe for two months, maybe for two weeks—but either way, she would die.

Unlike many other women in similar positions, O'Kelly was lucky enough to be informed of her options. She could continue with the pregnancy and give birth to a stillborn baby in a few months, or she could travel to the UK and put an end to both her and her little girl's suffering. According to O'Kelly, the latter was "the only decision we could really make."

As strange as it may seem, O'Kelly is one of the lucky ones. Women are rarely told the extent of options that are available to them outside of Irish jurisdiction. "It's totally the luck of the draw," says Gaye Edwards. She and her husband Gerry were in their mid-30s when they discovered they were expecting. They attended the 20-week scan in Dublin with boundless excitement. They had already given their son a name: Joshua.

Within minutes of the scan, the sonographer's face told Edwards everything she needed to know. "Bone shows up white," he told the couple. When a black mass is all that's visible on the screen, it's a simple way of delivering a catastrophic diagnosis.

Baby Joshua had anencephaly—a rare birth defect in which a failure with the neural tube means the baby doesn't develop a brain, a skull, and parts of the scalp. As specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no known cure or treatment for anencephaly. Should they survive a full-term pregnancy, almost all babies with the condition will die shortly after birth.

On diagnosis, Edwards was told by her consultant that her options were non-existent "in this jurisdiction." All she could do was wait for the day she'd give birth to her baby boy—and simultaneously watch him die moments later.

The medical records for Gaye Edwards' child. Photo courtesy of Gaye Edwards.

"You don't know what the views of the doctors' are before you present this to them," Edwards says. "At the Dublin hospital that I was in, the board had Catholic clergy on the board—which isn't abnormal."

It was only after copious amounts of Google searching that she eventually discovered a way out of her hell: two hours up the country and across the border, in Belfast.

Edwards says that only a select number of obstetricians in hidden clinics are "willing to help women like us." In the majority of cases, tracking them down in almost impossible. Not only do the personal views of the medical professionals working in Ireland's hospitals interfere with willingness to impart vital information, but a "nasty piece of legislation," introduced in 1995, has made the battle even more thorny.

The Regulation of Information Act limits the guidance that medics in the Republic of Ireland are legally allowed to give women such as Edwards and O'Kelly. Specific suggestions of specialized clinics or details of travel arrangements are strictly prohibited. Doctors and nurses in Ireland risk being prosecuted and fined up to £1,500 if so much as a subtle hint of advocating abortion is detected. For most effected women, this means grabbling around in the dark for a germ of information—or, in many cases, several months of even more extreme physical pain and desperation.

Ruth Bowie opted to travel to Liverpool for a termination in 2009, after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly in the womb. The decision meant abandoning her trusted consultant.

"It upset me," she says, "I would have appreciated a phone call from him or a follow up appointment. I would have loved to talk to someone who had been through the experience, but people just didn't talk about it. I felt so alone and never realized the amount of people it had happened to."

As part of adhering to the Regulation of Information Act, clinicians are prohibited from passing on patients' medical notes to any service that may be aiding them to terminate a pregnancy. Women usually arrive at their destination confused, frightened, and completely unprepared for what will happen.

"The unknown is the most frightening part," Edwards tells me. "There was no advice or support, and I had no idea what the procedure would involve at all. Would I be put to sleep and wake up and the whole thing would be over? "

In reality, the procedure is much like giving birth to a healthy child: the maternity ward, an induction, an anesthetic. Only, there are also funeral arrangements, a bitterly cold room for the lifeless baby, and the longest drive home imaginable. The farce of "giving birth" only makes the whole ordeal all the more traumatic.

"It was very impersonal," says Bowie. "You went up and paid your money at the hatch. It was clear that they hadn't read my notes and I was just another client to them.

"I had a surgical termination with a full anaesthetic. It was very quick. We were finished by lunchtime. Just like that our poor little baby was gone, our dreams and plans for her were over, and we were faced with an afternoon of wandering aimlessly around Birmingham waiting for our evening flight."

There is also the issue of bringing your baby home in order to say your goodbyes properly. For women who opt for terminations in Liverpool, London or elsewhere in England, the return of the body is straightforward but heart-breaking. From the frank conversations with ferry companies, to the deathly silence of the Moses basket in the backseat, the journey is treacherous. The alternative, however, isn't ideal either.

"Taking him home back over the border was just impossible," says Edwards, who travelled from Dublin to Belfast in Northern Ireland for her procedure.

"The hospital could arrange for him to be taken into the crematorium in Belfast, but they weren't able to tell us when it would be because they'd only get a notification at very short notice," she says. Forced to leave their baby behind, Gaye and Gerry Edwards spent the following 14 years haunted by the fact that their baby was cremated alone. It was only until last year, through Gaye's pro-choice campaigning, that she met with a midwife who revealed some precious information.

"She told us that there was a pathologist on the ward where Joshua was born who took the babies over to the crematorium in her own car. She sat with them all until it was their time. He wasn't alone after all."

Fifteen years on, Edwards, O'Kelly, Bowie, and dozens of women with similar stories have united to fight for specific considerations of fatal fetal abnormalities within abortion law. Campaign group Termination For Medical Reasons have been helping women with fatal pregnancies for over four years. What began as a small community of women offering hidden information and support for their sisters is today a heartfelt campaign involving ministers and politicians. The women say they won't rest until termination for medical reasons is available in Ireland.

According to Ruth Bowie, it's the stories from women like her that are the key to significant change. "People who say that they didn't believe it [abortion] should be available for any reason have heard our stories and their minds have been changed," she says.

As for God? Interestingly, the experience seems to have had little impact on their relationship with religion. Most women, in fact, place the Irish government at the heart of the problem—with little regard for the religious basis of the Eighth Amendment. It's important for their children to be honoured with a religious funeral; some keep their termination secret from their family members. For a few women, the legalization of abortion in general is still a step too far.

It may seem baffling that faith remains strong in such horrendous circumstances, but if somehow it eases the pain, who are we to judge?

"I have a very strong faith in God", Bowie tells me, "but I don't think he has damned me for what I did. Ireland's religion will tell me that I should feel guilty, say a million Hail Marys and worry that I'll rot in hell—but I don't believe in a God like that.

"Mine's a loving, caring and understanding God."

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abortion
reproductive rights
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Ireland
Broadly Health