In 2009 my husband and I were lucky to conceive our first child shortly after getting married. It was such an exciting and happy time that unfortunately turned into a horrific and traumatic time, our worst nightmare.
After two bleeds and feeling very unwell, uneasy and paranoid about how the pregnancy was going, I arranged a private scan to ‘reassure’ myself that things were going smoothly. Things were far from smooth. The lady that scanned me identified a problem with our baby’s head straight away and asked us when we were due back to our maternity hospital. I sensed the urgency in her voice and expressions and I knew it was bad when she refused to charge us for the scan.
After a few phone calls and help from my medical family, an appointment was made for us the following morning in one of the maternity hospitals to see a specialist in Fetal Medicine. I was sure that perhaps my baby had hydrocephalus or another congenital abnormality and had fully accepted that if this was the case we would cope and would love our baby regardless. I could never have been prepared for what we were told that morning as the experts scanned us. Our baby had anencephaly, a neural tube defect that results in the absence of a major part of the brain and skull. As a nurse, I immediately knew what the diagnosis meant: my baby’s condition was incompatible with life. There wasn’t even a 1% chance that our baby would survive.
I remember the consultant and midwife talking to us and the overwhelming sadness and shock I felt. I remember thinking when these people go home tonight they are going to remember us and having to give us this heartbreaking news. The consultant explained that we had two choices: We continue with the pregnancy, our baby would die as soon as she was born or shortly after if the pregnancy got that far, or we terminate. If we chose to terminate we would be referred to the Irish Family Planning Association who would help us arrange the termination in the UK.
For myself and my husband, choosing the next step was simple – we would not continue with the pregnancy. I am forever grateful that we were wholly united in that decision. Ringing my dear Mum and having to break this news to her was utterly heartbreaking. I remember her being so shocked, not by our awful news, but by the fact that we had to travel to the UK for the termination. I don’t really remember the days that followed other than the amazing support from my husband, family and close friends. I cried and cried and was so angry. The anger was not about our babies diagnosis – I’ve nursed long enough to realise that bad things happen to people every day – I just felt so angry that we had to travel. I thought that surely under these circumstances termination was allowed in Ireland. I wanted to have the chance to stand up in front of a Judge and plead my case to let me be looked after in my own country. Instead, we had to travel to the UK with all our grief, feeling like criminals.
The following week we went to our appointment with the IFPA and within 15 minutes our appointment with a clinic in Birmingham was made. We travelled two days later – the early morning flight, full of businessmen and groups of women on weekend shopping trips. It felt so wrong and again I was so angry that our healthcare system in Ireland had let us down and was not able to help us and support us in our choice.
The taxi journey to the clinic was horrible. Paranoia probably, but I was convinced the taxi driver was judging us and I felt like I wanted to explain that my baby wouldn’t survive outside me and I was doing the best I could. The staff at the clinic couldn’t have been kinder – they were obviously used to people in our situation- but it felt like a conveyer belt. We were in and out and finished by lunchtime. Just like that our poor little baby was gone. Our dreams and plans for her over and an afternoon ahead of us wandering aimlessly around Birmingham waiting for our evening flight. Me bleeding and cramping; my poor husband not knowing what to do or say. It was awful. At one stage we even contemplated going to the cinema, just to be able to sit somewhere quiet and dark. We flew home that evening and the relief to climb into bed at my parents’ house was unreal. The weeks that followed were full of grief and darkness.
Although we felt no shame about the decision we had made, this journey made us feel like criminals. It made an already traumatic situation infinitely worse. Moreover, we feel we missed out on important aftercare. Although we received excellent care and advice from the maternity hospital at the time of diagnosis, there was no support available for us before the termination and, crucially, after it. There are support groups for people who have had miscarriages and stillbirths, but there is nothing for people in our situation. We fall into a category that our healthcare system chooses to ignore and, worse, to stigmatise.
I never ever want another woman in this situation to have to travel to the UK for a termination. In our country, we, alongside medical staff, can make the decision to turn off life support in a relative that is brain dead and incompatible with life so why can’t we make this choice for our unborn babies? I want to be very clear – I am not asking that abortion is legalised here for every reason but I am asking that where the baby is deemed, by medical professionals, to be incompatible with life that the woman would be allowed to be cared for in Ireland. Terminating a much longed-for pregnancy is an entirely different story to any other type.