Growing up in Ireland, I never gave much thought to abortion or the lack thereof. I do, however, have a vivid memory of being a young teenager and coming across an extreme pro-life stand in the centre of Dublin, with horrific pictures of aborted foetuses. I was so enraged that I told the middle-aged man behind the stand how utterly insensitive he was, displaying these images when women may have been walking past who had lost their much-wanted baby from miscarriages or complications. Little did I know that I would go on to experience such a loss.
In the summer of 2009 I was newly married and pregnant with our first baby. My husband, Mike, and I were anticipating the most exciting time of our lives, but it turned out to be the worst. After two bleeds, I booked a private 12-week scan to reassure myself that things were going smoothly. Things were far from smooth.
Our nightmare began when we were told that our much-wanted baby would not survive. She had anencephaly, a condition that meant a large part of her skull and brain did not develop. This condition was labelled “incompatible with life” and, as a paediatric nurse I knew there was no hope.
We asked the consultant what we should do next and he replied: “You either continue with the pregnancy and your baby will die in utero or at birth – or you travel.”
“To travel” is an Irish euphemism for booking a cheap flight to England to obtain an abortion. Continuing with the pregnancy was not an option for us. I couldn’t contemplate another 28 weeks of carrying a baby that I knew had no chance of survival. I couldn’t imagine people watching my bump grow and asking well-meaning questions like, “Have you got your nursery ready?” What was I to reply?
I have never felt so much anger towards my own country as I did the day Mike and I boarded the early morning flight to Birmingham. At the worst time of my life, when my country should have wrapped its arms around me, it turned its back on me. I wanted to be looked after in Ireland, where my family and friends could support us as we grieved, but instead we had to travel to England, like criminals.
I found it incredibly hard to understand why, in a country where a life support machine can be turned off when there’s no prospect of life for the patient, a woman could not get a termination when her own body was acting like a life support machine to keep her baby alive.
It was not until early 2012 that I found the fight in me to campaign against this barbaric law. This came only because, for the first time, I met other women who had experienced termination for a fatal foetal abnormality. We found strength in each other and went public with our stories.
Those stories and our pictures appeared on the front page of The Irish Times. We were not “X”, “A”, “B” or “C”. We were women with names and faces. Finally people could speak out about this previously unspoken topic, and some of the stigma was removed.
We set up the organisation Terminations For Medical Reasons (TFMR) Ireland with one very specific aim. We are campaigning for terminations for fatal foetal abnormalities to be legal in Ireland. Nothing more. We want couples who make the heart-breaking decision to end a much-wanted pregnancy following this devastating diagnosis to be afforded the compassionate care they deserve.
We have a big battle ahead of us. People who live outside Ireland have little idea how the abortion debate plays out here. Politicians are afraid of supporting it, even in situations like ours, in case they lose precious votes. The media are obsessed by it, regularly pitting pro-life people against pro-choice people, which is not constructive. The Catholic Church is vehemently opposed to it, using the power it has over the country and our institutions to impose its views and beliefs on us all.
While the powers that be have not moved out of the Dark Ages, I am hopeful that the general public wants to look to the future. The overwhelming support we received after we spoke out is an indication of that. People realise that the abortion issue is not black and white: there are grey areas, as we experienced, and they must be dealt with.
So I will keep telling my story, keep talking to journalists, keep emailing politicians, keep raising awareness of this awful situation which Irish couples find themselves in every week, until one day change comes.
The government can never change this fatal diagnosis. But it can change the law.
Ruth Bowie campaigns for Terminations For Medical Reasons (TFMR) Ireland