In the summer of 2011, Dr Siobhan Donohue was forced to travel to the UK from her home in Ireland to have a termination after she discovered her baby had a fatal abnormality.
Here, she tells her story:
As I write this, my four-year-old son is laughing at cartoons on television. His chuckles make me smile and I relieve the joy I feel that we have him. Our rainbow baby, who has brought healing to our once broken family.
To the outside world, he is our third child but he would not be here at all if his older brother TJ, our actual third, had lived. This is TJ’s story as much as it is mine.
In May 2011 I discovered I was pregnant. I was thrilled. It was my third pregnancy. I had always hoped to have three children and that I could complete my family before I turned forty. This baby was due just after my fortieth birthday and I was a bit smug that I would achieve this goal.
All went well in those early months. I felt good and my then four-year-old was looking forward to welcoming his new sibling. My two-year-old was oblivious to it all. I went for my anomaly scan at twenty weeks and that’s when our world fell apart.
The sonographer began the scan and pointed out the heart beat. Then there was a pause before she said the words I will never forget. “I’m a little concerned,” she said, “I can’t see the top of the baby’s skull”.
In that moment everything changed. I’m a GP so I knew what she meant.
“Do you mean like anencephaly?” I heard myself say.
“Oh you’ve heard of it?” she said with relief.
Anencephaly is when the top half of the baby’s head doesn’t form. There was literally nothing above his eyes: no brain, no skull, no scalp. Most babies with the condition will either be stillborn or die soon after birth.
It didn’t take long for this to sink in. I wasn’t going to get to bring this baby home to meet his siblings. I was faced with a further twenty weeks of pregnancy knowing my baby was going to die.
I could see daily conversations everywhere I went. The usual seemingly banal questions every pregnant person gets asked: When are you due? Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl? What would I say? Would I play along and answer as if nothing was wrong or would I tell them that the baby was going to die?
I’d be in bits. They’d be in bits. Day to day living would become intolerable. To me it seemed a cruel form of torture that would very quickly affect my mental health as well as the welfare of those closest to me.
So I made the decision to end the pregnancy. I never dreamed I would choose to have an abortion but I was faced with two horrible options and no good outcome. For me and my family an abortion was the least worst option.
And so, a week later, my husband and I boarded an early morning flight to Liverpool along with businessmen and hen parties and couples enjoying a romantic break. I remember thinking how surreal it was. How could life just carry on as usual when we were faced with such tragedy?
The light in the darkness was Liverpool. When we arrived at Liverpool Women’s, we were wrapped in a blanket of care and compassion. Everyone we met treated us with kindness and gently guided us through the process.
After a scan to confirm the diagnosis I was given the first dose of medication to start the process. We then had 48 hours at our hotel before returning to the hospital to start the induction.
I had never been to Liverpool before. I had a picture in my head of a grey industrial city but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a bright vibrant friendly place that took care of us that weekend.
And so on 1 October I was admitted for compassionate induction of labour.
Late that night, our little mite was delivered and as expected did not live. But we got to hold him and name him and I felt a sense of peace for the first time since we learned that he would die.
The midwife dressed him, taking photos and hand and foot prints for us to keep. The hospital Chaplin blessed him for us. His kind words and compassion have stayed with me as the years have passed.
And then we had to leave our baby boy behind and come home. I had to go through the queues and stresses of airport security just hours after giving birth while coming to terms with the death of our baby.
We chose to have him cremated and his ashes were sent to our home by courier a few weeks later. I often wonder if the delivery man knew what was in the package.
Since my experience I have met many parents who have been in similar circumstances to mine; parents who have travelled for termination and those who were unable to do so and I have felt the persisting sadness that hangs over all these people because of Ireland’s laws.
It is like the cruel twist of a knife at the lowest time in your life. The hardest part should be dealing with the news that your baby is going to die but it isn’t.
The hardest and most cruel part is the realisation that your own country would force you to carry your baby to term regardless of your wishes having received such tragic news.
And it’s that feeling that haunts you and stays with you as time goes on.
It’s time Ireland started looking after parents in these horrific and difficult circumstances. It’s time for compassion. It’s time to support women in their reproductive choices. It’s time to repeal the eighth.