Heart-rending story of mum whose baby's brain was washed away so had to flee to UK for abortion

When the 31-year-old returned a few hours later, still in agony, doctors concluded that a miscarriage was inevitable.

Savita Halappanavar, a dentist, asked for an emergency termination.

The medical team had no choice but to refuse – because abortion is illegal in Ireland  under the Eighth Amendment, even in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality.

Just a few days later Savita was dead from septicaemia.

Yet six years on, she is not forgotten. As I walk around Dublin, Savita’s face is plastered over thousands of posters in the run up to one of the biggest political decisions in Ireland’s modern history.

On Friday the country will vote on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

On one side of the debate, the pro-choice campaign, led by Together for Yes, wants to make abortion legal while the ‘No’ – or pro-life – camp wants to keep the law in place. 

On the streets of Dublin, almost everyone has a badge on their backpack or coat, declaring allegiance to one side of the debate.

Every lamppost on every street corner has a Yes and a No campaign poster on it. At every bus stop, people are talking about abortion.

When I walk past the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin, I watch as pro-life campaigners shove pictures of aborted foetuses into expectant mothers’ faces.

In response, nurses dressed as angels turn up and cover the posters with their wings.

As a Catholic country, abortion is seen as murder and a sin.

As the law stands, a woman cannot terminate a pregnancy even if her life is in danger or if her unborn child will be born disabled. Fifty women have either died or been harmed because they were denied an abortion. 

Under current Irish law, a woman who has been raped and has an abortion illegally could technically face more jail time than the man who raped her. 

Irish women who want an abortion currently have two options: have an illegal termination in Ireland (you can get 14 years in prison for taking illegal abortion pills) or travel to England and pay for one. 

Nine women a day travel to UK for an abortion and 170,216 women have done so in the last 30 years.

In Ireland I meet two women who were forced to make this emotional journey. 

‘The shame of this country was laid bare to me. I was abandoned in my hour of need’

Aine O'Neill, 32, a special-needs assistant from East Galway

“When I found out I was pregnant in the summer of 2016 I was over the moon. I could not stop smiling.

I was 30 years old, in a very happy relationship and this was my second pregnancy. I was really excited for Tiernan, my first son, who was four, to have a brother or sister.

It was a sunny and warm June day when I went for my 12-week scan. But I could tell within seconds that something was not right.

The room was too quiet, there were too many clicks of the machine, and the nurse was pressing too hard on my tummy. She turned to me and held my hand and said she was so, so sorry. There was no chance for my little one to make it outside of me.

The doctors my baby had anencephaly, that it was 'unviable', that it was incompatible with life.

They didn’t tell me any detail about the condition itself, they said to go home and Google it. Then I realised that I would not be able to get the help I needed in my own country.

When I asked for help, all I got were whispers and sidelong looks. They just weren’t talking to me. It was very strange.

I did go home and Google it. It’s basically a neural-tube defect. In very early weeks in pregnancy, a fusing doesn’t occur in the skull, the skull doesn’t form, and then it gets washed away in the amniotic fluid. So, basically, there’s no brain.

When I read those words my heart stopped and everything sounded strange, like I was underwater.

They wanted me to come back and see a neonatal specialist in eight days, when I would have been 14 weeks pregnant. And there was nothing they could have done for me.

Limited options

If I stayed in Ireland, my only option would have to continue with my pregnancy and taken it to term. I would have had to live my life as a pregnant person, knowing that there wasn’t going to be a baby at the end of it for me to hold.

I’d have to go to school, drop Tiernan off, with my bump, and everyone would be asking me about it. Going to the shop, going to work – it would have been hell.

The shame of this country was laid bare to me. Big hot wet tears flowed down my face. I screamed the house down, I screamed for my mum. I screamed in pain and loss and anger.

I always knew that abortion was illegal growing up, and I grew up thinking that 'abortion' was a dirty word. It wasn’t until I got pregnant that I realised that there would be cases where abortion is the kinder thing to do.

The first night after I found out I just lay awake stressing out whether or not I had heard the doctors correctly, because it was such a quick appointment. I had looked online, so I had the images in my head of what was happening to my baby.

How Irish women have abortions

This can cost up to £470 for an abortion under 10 weeks, or as much as £1,500 for a surgical termination at 18-24 weeks, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

That’s before you even factor in the additional costs of travel and accommodation.

The first option usually means buying abortion pills online.

These are only available for early pregnancies (up to 10 weeks) and work by inducing a miscarriage – but there is a strict penalty of a 14-year jail sentence if you are caught, so many women who go down this route usually suffer the pain and danger of a secret miscarriage alone at home.

The journey over

So, after a lot of crying, I got myself together and found a way to get to England. My passport was out of date, and sorting this problem caused a major headache, even more phone calls and, worse, more explaining.

We had to drive to Dublin for the day to get our emergency passports sorted. This was the time when I should have been coming to terms with this tragedy, and grieving for my loss.

Before our flight, I was walking around the house, trying to pack the bags. I put the same T-shirt in the suitcase and took it out again for hours, breaking down and crying. I don’t think I slept at all that night before we left for England.

The next morning, I got up at 2am with my son and drove over 130 miles back to Dublin (because the €400 more to fly from Shannon near my house was a luxury I could not afford). This all happened 48 hours after getting the diagnosis.

When I did get to the clinic in England they wanted to send me away. I was so sick from the stress of the previous days, they said I was not fit for the procedure.

Later that day an understanding nurse and two doctors examined me, and they finally agreed to do it considering the circumstances. They had to put me under a general anaesthetic. 

The devastating return home

I had the return to the maternity hospital looming over me. It was such a cruel way to treat people, to make me come back into the maternity hospital with all the other mothers in there.

It was so hard to go in there, but you just have to swallow your fear and get your legs moving.

We asked them why I had been treated this way, to put me through hell and torture. They said that they were so, so sorry. At that point, they were sympathetic.

All my immediate family and were devastated and hated to see me in so much pain. They were so angry that I wasn’t going to be looked after by the Irish healthcare system.

It wasn’t just me and my partner and my son who felt it, there was a whole community around me who were shocked and in tears about it. The fact that I was abandoned in my hour of need – it was so upsetting.

This experience has made me think again about having more children. I’m afraid for myself and every other woman who gets pregnant, because it can happen to anyone.

It’s not just about fatal foetal abnormalities like mine, there are lots of things that can happen in pregnancy.

I wouldn’t get pregnant in Ireland again, unless the Eighth Amendment gets repealed.

I will never be the same. I will never have the same connection to my country, a place I always felt love and pride for."

‘The procedure in England cost me more than two months’ wages’

Mary Flynn, 72, retired university staff from Dublin

“I became pregnant in my early 20s, in an Ireland where all forms of contraception, except the Pill prescribed for 'therapeutic' purposes, were illegal.

It was 1970 and everything had to be done in secret. You couldn’t ask for help. I didn’t want to go to a GP to get a pregnancy test because then people would find out. I was lucky that the father’s colleague worked in a lab, and he did the test for me.

We were told that abortion was murder, and any woman who did it was a murderess. You weren’t really a woman if you could do this.

But I was in my first year at work, there was no possibility of a relationship with the father, and I didn’t want children.

The cost of making the trip

After a lot of panic, I managed to organise getting myself to London by boat and train. The procedure cost £120, which was over two months’ net pay of my wages at that time. And that wasn’t with the cost of the ferry or the train included either.

And then, at Euston station, I went into a phone box, looked in the phone book, and dialled the number for a family-planning clinic.

Back then there was no internet, so I was on my own, in a phone box, trying to sort out this thing that was going to change my life.

I went to see a doctor the next day, and he booked me an appointment at a clinic in the suburbs. It’s the same story as so many other women.

I remember getting in the taxi from the local station, and driving up to the clinic. I was nine weeks pregnant, but at that time all abortions were done by D&C [dilation and curettage], where the foetus is removed by scraping and scooping.

I had to have a general anaesthetic and stay overnight.

Coming to terms with the shame

I was told that I might have some light bleeding and spotting, and I did.

But, because I was kept in overnight, I had some time to recover. Lots of women today aren’t kept in, and go home almost immediately. So some women suffer a lot more than I did.

I had the problem of shame – because abortion was something that your culture, your society and your family would disapprove of. But, in myself, I never felt that shame.

I have to say, I’ve never felt such a sense of relief after it was over. And that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

My family were religious but I was always unsure. I had been to Catholic boarding school. The abortion didn’t make me stop believing in God, but around that time I said, ‘No. I’m not interested in religion. This has nothing for me anymore.’

Failed by my country

I didn’t tell anyone until about my abortion until many years later. I didn’t mention it to people until the first referendum on abortion in 1983. I decided to tell a member of my family, who then outed me. But by that stage, my mother and father had died. That was hard.

I did feel that my country had failed me – and not just me, but every woman who has been in my situation since then. I’m very angry about the fact that so many women are still having to go through what happened to me – 40 years later.

I didn’t want a baby. I had to travel alone, in secret, to make a decision about my own body. I think that’s so wrong.

But mine is a happy story.

Before I got pregnant, I was working in a university. And my abortion allowed me to continue that job, living a normal life. In the 1970s, that would have been impossible to do with an unmarried pregnancy in Ireland.

I lived a very politically-active life. From 1970 onwards, after I had my abortion, I got very involved in the Irish women’s liberation movement.

A few years later, I became a subcommittee member of the Irish Family Planning Association. There were other organisations I got involved in too – I was a feminist. I still am a feminist.

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