Monday 20 February 2017

Graham Linehan on living in fear: 'I had brought the woman I love to a place where she wasn't safe'

Father Ted writer Graham Linehan reflects on the response to the video in which he and his wife Helen spoke about their anguish on being told their unborn child had a fatal foetal abnormality - and why he feels Irish abortion law must be changed

Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30

Graham Linehan and his wife Helen attend an Amnesty International event in Belfast calling for a change to Ireland's strict abortion laws
Graham Linehan and his wife Helen attend an Amnesty International event in Belfast calling for a change to Ireland's strict abortion laws
Campaign: Graham Linehan and wife Helen (left) shared their heartbreaking story and have called for the abortion laws in Ireland to change so another mother like Savita Halappanavar, would not have to die unnecessarily
A protest following the death of Savita Halappanavar. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

When Helen became pregnant in 2004, we were overjoyed. So excited were we, in fact, that we broke the 12-week rule and told the news to friends, family, the milkman and whoever else crossed our path.

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At the 11-week scan, we learned why there was a 12-week rule.

We were stunned to hear that the foetus had a condition known as acrania, a fatal abnormality. Our baby's skull would not fully encase the brain. The doctors were very clear; if our child even made it to full term, it would not survive for long after birth. We were devastated, and together we numbly took the decision to end the pregnancy. There was no way we would put a child, or Helen, through that kind of trauma, and thankfully the UK's health system meant that a few days later we were able to move on with our lives.

We went on to have two children, one of them born in Ireland after we moved back there for a couple of years. It was at a playgroup in Dublin that one of the other mums told my wife that the operation we had received in the UK would have been illegal in Ireland.

When Helen told me this, I literally couldn't believe it. I knew of Ireland's stringent abortion restrictions, but surely they didn't extend that far? I did some research and found that it was indeed the case that the excellent medical care we received in the UK was illegal in Ireland.

I still struggle with this knowledge. The country of my birth was telling me that at the moment of conception, my wife's human rights evaporated. I had brought the woman I love to a place where she wasn't safe.

We're back in England now, and I realise that Helen and I are among the lucky ones. It was horrific to lose a much wanted baby, but we were supported by brilliant doctors and nurses who guided us through the ordeal with compassion. Our questions were answered quickly.

In Ireland, these same questions are met with silence. Irish doctors, nurses and midwives are legally forbidden to offer this support. If they do, they face a possible 14-year jail term.

Campaign: Graham Linehan and wife Helen (left) shared their heartbreaking story and have called for the abortion laws in Ireland to change so another mother like Savita Halappanavar, would not have to die unnecessarily
Campaign: Graham Linehan and wife Helen (left) shared their heartbreaking story and have called for the abortion laws in Ireland to change so another mother like Savita Halappanavar, would not have to die unnecessarily

Think of all the stages Helen and I would have been forced to go through had we received our diagnosis in Ireland. In the midst of the shock, grief and despair, we would have had to figure out how to access the health service of another jurisdiction without a referral, as it's also illegal for an Irish doctor to refer patients to abortion services in the UK. And that's just the beginning. Finding a clinic, booking the flight, waiting for the date, checking into a hotel and then the procedure itself, another taxi, another flight, and back home to the country that spat us out.

And even there, we would have considered ourselves lucky. Many can't afford to travel, and in these cases, Irish law forces women to deliver the foetus no matter what the impact on their physical or mental health. To force a woman to continue a pregnancy which, in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, only has one outcome, is cruel beyond belief.

By now I'm sure you've read many of these stories. They often end with a sick punchline. Like the woman who was not able to take her son home in a coffin for a family burial and so his remains arrived in a jiffy bag by courier.

This is gothic horror. This is barbarism. This is Ireland in 2016.

And all of this is happening in the face of international human rights bodies repeatedly telling Ireland that its laws are violating the human rights of its women and girls. It is not just women with fatal foetal impairment diagnoses that are being harmed. No woman or girl should face a criminal penalty (never mind 14 years in prison) for exercising her right to health care and autonomy over her own body.

Since Helen and I shared our story, we've heard from dozens of families affected by this issue. We've also received a substantial amount of negative, hateful correspondence. One person said that Helen had denied our baby "9 months of love", a bizarre and disgusting thing to say. Some even try to dismiss our experience claiming that there is no such thing as a fatal foetal abnormality, a flat-out lie that is insulting and deeply distressing for anyone who has had to confront that reality.

Then there are those who seek to confuse the issue. For instance, why would anti-choice groups try to equate fatal foetal abnormality with disabilities like Down's syndrome? The two are not remotely related. Death is not a disability. The truth is that they know there is enormous sympathy for people who receive this diagnosis, and so they want to make it something it is not.

If they had a strong case, they wouldn't have to lie.

One person who contacted me after seeing the film (see YouTube link below) complained that I had made Ireland look like a backward place from a Hammer horror film. It seemed that for him, the film was the problem, not the issue it addressed. As I say, when it comes to our laws on abortion, the way we treat women in Ireland is the stuff of gothic horror. Rather than avoid that fact, or be insulted by the very suggestion of it, we might be better working to change it. To our collective credit, the vast majority of Irish people want to see that happen.

Polling has consistently shown support for access to abortion and not just in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. The Irish people are fundamentally compassionate; they want to support women. The vast, vast majority are outraged that we continue to dictate to women how they deal with their reproductive lives.

The Irish State has a history of treating women and girls despicably. In 1984, 15-year-old Ann Lovett and her newborn baby died after she gave birth to him alone in a grotto near the graveyard in Granard. Thousands of women were enslaved in the Magdalene laundries; hundreds more suffer with the ongoing consequences of a symphysiotomy performed without their consent. The Irish State has no right to dictate to women any more.

I believe that the vast majority of Irish people trust women. They want all women to have access to the kind of medical care and support that Helen and I received in London.

It is the moral cowardice at the centre of the Irish political system that continues to deny Irish women their human rights. It's the Irish political system that criminalises women and girls, like my wife, who face these tragic circumstances.

It's time for Irish politicians, and those seeking public office, to acknowledge the current abortion laws. Laws which do not in fact prevent women from having abortions but instead force them to travel to another country to have a termination. The brutal impact of these laws can be seen in the lived experiences of women forced to leave their families at a time of such intense personal tragedy. It's been three years since Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis after being denied the abortion she repeatedly requested. Do we need to wait for another tragic case before we act? I hope not. I hope that another woman need not die because the Irish political system is too cowardly to deal with the issue proactively.

This week, Ireland goes to the polls. I hope that on every doorstep, in every public debate, in every phony photo-op, politicians are repeatedly asked: do you trust Irish women? If you don't trust the women of Ireland to make these choices, you have no business seeking to represent them.

One last thing. If you've been affected by this issue, please tell your story. Having seen you do it first, the next person to tell their story will find it easier. And the voices raised against changing this barbaric law will have to deal with the reality you have lived. It's a big thing to ask. It's deeply private; no-one's business but your own, and you shouldn't have to do it. But in the last 35 years, over 162,000 women have left Ireland for the UK in order to have a termination. You're out there somewhere, and if you're not heard from, Ireland can go on pretending that you don't exist.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYpRBR93TdU

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