'I feel I'm not allowed to grieve because I chose to kill my child' - How Sarah and Andrew's journey to Britain was the hardest decision they ever had to make
Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30
In March this year, Sarah and her husband, Andrew, packed a bag and took a flight from Dublin to the UK to terminate their baby son's life at 23 weeks' gestation. It was, without doubt, the hardest decision the couple has ever had to make. Their baby was injected through his mother's tummy to stop his heart. Sarah was then induced and laboured for five hours before their little boy, Liam, was delivered and they held his tiny, lifeless body in their arms.
"It felt like a normal birth," says Sarah. "There was that amazing feeling of euphoria when the baby was born and then it hits you… I felt like my body had played a very cruel trick on me."
When 33-year-old Sarah was 21 weeks pregnant, she was dealt the devastating news that her baby would be born with severe mental and physical disabilities that would, in all likelihood, render him unlikely to survive for long outside his mother's womb.
"Call it mother's intuition but I knew something wasn't right," says Sarah, who has a daughter, 20-month-old Zoe. "I fainted just before we went for the anomaly scan at 21 weeks because I knew there was something wrong."
But it was still a shock when the midwife doing the scan turned and said the words: "I'm sorry, it doesn't look good."
Meetings with neurologists, paediatricians and other medical professionals followed where it was revealed their baby had severe foetal abnormalities. He was diagnosed with severe spina bifida, Chiari malformation (where the lower parts of the brain have been pushed down towards the spinal cord) and hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) as well as signs of intrauterine growth restriction, leaving him measuring much smaller than would be expected at this stage of pregnancy.
The couple were given two choices: carry to term then deliver a baby that is unlikely to survive past the delivery ward, or travel to the UK for an abortion. Sarah and Andrew deliberated for two weeks before making the heartbreaking decision to terminate the pregnancy. What has compounded their agony, both when they got the news and now dealing with the aftermath, is the fact that they were unable to have the operation in Ireland, close to their Dublin home with the medical team they knew and with the support of their friends and family nearby.
"After getting such devastating news, all you want to do is curl up and grieve, but for us that wasn't possible because the route we chose is illegal in Ireland," says Sarah, a part-time radiographer who is originally from New Zealand but has been living and working in Ireland for the last 10 years.
"We had to spend the next week ringing unknown hospitals in unknown towns, looking up hotels, booking flights and organising childcare. At the one time in our lives when we needed our friends and family the most, we were having to leave them.
"We had to sneak off to another country and that made it so much harder, emotionally and physically. It feels like the Government is punishing women, so very harshly, for doing what we feel is best for our unborn children. At a time when you really need the support and help of your country, you're abandoned."
The voices involved in the debate are often loud and varied, but it's perhaps in listening to the softly spoken experience of someone who has been through the process that it becomes most clear that 'the abortion issue' isn't some abstract concept but a very real, difficult and personal battle.
"We feel we have to hide what happened to us and pretend Liam never existed, which has made my healing process so much harder," explains Sarah, her voice breaking with emotion.
"I feel like I'm not allowed to grieve because I chose to kill my child… I'm not allowed to grieve like someone who lost a baby naturally - but I feel the same. He was a very, very wanted baby. It was a huge decision and we had to think of so many things. There was no real way out, I shouldn't be put down as a 'murderer' for it."
'Murder' is a word she says creeps up frequently on the many parenting forums she's on online.
"That's so hurtful and I think it's because people don't understand exactly what happens in this scenario, it's much more than just jumping on a boat or a plane."
Physically and emotionally, Sarah felt she couldn't carry her baby to term knowing that she was unlikely to ever bring him home. The couple had been trying for a second child for seven months and had suffered two miscarriages. Sarah's pregnancy was already starting to show and, at 19 weeks, she'd felt her baby kick.
To go through another 17 weeks of getting bigger, feeling him grow inside her and fending off questions from well-wishers wanting to know when he was due, what size he was, what gender, all the time knowing that his little life was unlikely to last past the delivery ward, would have been simply too much. She also believes it was the best decision for her baby.
"I just couldn't face the idea of him being born alive and suffering in pain for those few hours," she says.
"I thought that was more cruel, for me and for him. Some people might think 'why end his life early if he's going to die anyway?' But to put him through suffering just so we could have a few hours or maybe days with him seems selfish to me. I just wanted to spare him any pain."
One of the aspects she felt was particularly difficult to deal with, was the fact that she might have to pay to end her baby's life. Costs for flights, accommodation and a termination can average around €4,000, often placing a huge financial strain on women contemplating an abortion.
"But for me, the hardest thing about the cost was the mental trauma," says Sarah. "Having to spend that money to end the life of our child, which I didn't want to do but knew in my heart was the right thing to do. If someone had told me it was to cost a million euro to cure him, I would have jumped at the chance. But to spend a tiny amount to end his life, that was not something I coped with very well."
In the end, she was able to access the procedure, without having to pay, on the NHS, having lived as a UK citizen, and they were able to switch from a Liverpool hospital to an Edinburgh clinic where Andrew has family in the city. She opted for a medical termination, being induced and going through labour, rather than a surgical abortion which would have been conducted under general anaesthetic.
"I felt the least I could do was go through a little bit of labour for him," she says. "Surgery came with more risks and I wouldn't have been able to spend time with him."
After she delivered him, Sarah and her husband dressed their son and spent three hours cradling him in a cuddle cot before they had to leave him in the hospital and fly home without him.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," says Sarah quietly.
She says simply that they wanted to "fall apart" but instead had to sort their travel documents and try and be polite with strangers as they boarded a plane, all the time knowing that they last time they took a flight, their baby had been alive and with them. Sarah cried the entire journey.
They discovered that it wasn't possible to bring the body home with them on the flight for burial, only via ferry, and so had to arrange for cremation in the UK then fly back again to bring the ashes home to Dublin. And yet, despite what they've been through, Sarah says she feels more fortunate than some women
"I think it's horrific that some women are forced to carry to term because they can't afford to go overseas," she says. "And other women are risking their lives buying pills online because they haven't the money to travel. Or they have the abortion but no access to aftercare at home. It's just so unfair. People might say that changing the law leaves it open to exploitation but I think leaving it as it is causes more harm.
"I find the arguments that it would 'open the floodgate' or that women would use abortions as contraception really insulting. Even if the baby is unwanted, it's not something that people do lightly. It's a massive decision and hugely traumatic, and it's being made worse by a system that turns its back on you when you're at your most vulnerable."
Reassuringly, she says the medical staff she dealt with at the Irish maternity hospital she was attending were "compassionate and helpful" and did as much as they could to ease her situation. She also feels fortunate to have had access to aftercare in Ireland - something many women travelling abroad for a termination miss out on. The day after the procedure, she had a call from her Irish midwife checking she was okay, then another one the following week to schedule a hospital check-up and counselling. And, while the online dialogue can be vicious, those close to her who she has told about the termination have been empathetic and supportive.
In fact, a poll carried out by Amnesty International last year found that 81pc of the population favoured significantly broadening access to abortion to Ireland.
Next week, on July 15, would have been Sarah's due date. She and Andrew planned to scatter their son's ashes on what could have been his birthday but Sarah's not ready to let him go, it's too soon to say goodbye. The urn will stay with his picture beside it in their Dublin home.
She still finds herself blindsided by grief, 'losing it' in unlikely places, tearing up in shops. There is guilt and "there are always 'what ifs'," she admits.
"What if they got it wrong? What if everything was fine? Did we do the right thing? What if it had just been a bit of spina bifida? I could have handled a disabled child."
But instead of forever wondering, the couple made the difficult choice to have an autopsy done after the pregnancy was terminated and it confirmed what doctors had said, their baby was severely handicapped and would have been unlikely to survive.
They still hope that one day they might have another baby, a little brother or sister for Zoe, but there's a very real possibility that they could find themselves in exactly the same position. Liam's autopsy also revealed Sarah has a rare condition that can cause her body to reject pregnancies. Having successfully given birth to Zoe, she knows she can carry a pregnancy to term but doctors have warned that there's a high possibility of what happened to Liam, happening again. It's too raw now to think about another child.
"I do want another baby," says Sarah. "But I also want the one I lost."
She hopes that speaking out about what she's gone through might make the experience that little bit less isolating for the next woman who has to go through it.
She also hopes that telling her story might help people realise the personal anguish involved in the abortion process and not see it as just something debated in the Dáil, reduced to facts and figures.
"If I can change even one person's opinion from a no to a yes, it might help to get the law changed so more women don't have to go through what I did," she says.
Most of all, she wants to be able to grieve her dead child without fear of other people's judgment.
"People don't talk to me about the baby, they dodge the subject," she explains.
"I get that maybe they don't want to hurt me or they don't want to remind me - but I never stop thinking about him and all I want is for someone to acknowledge his existence."