LISTEN: ‘I might as well have been in a forest on my own’ during abortion

Isobel was told at CUMH that her baby would either die in the womb or an hour after being born. She decided to go to England for a termination but was appalled by the service and her treatment there, writes Alison O’Connor

LISTEN: ‘I might as well have been in a forest on my own’ during abortion

ISOBEL* remembers being ecstatic when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child.

She remembers travelling to the Cork University Maternity Hospital for the 12-week scan and just wanting to hear that “little flicker of a heartbeat”.

The hospital was “mental” that day it was so busy. In the scanning room the nurse said she had difficulty seeing the baby’s head. She wanted to get the consultant to have a look. After re-entering the room Isobel remembers seeing the doctor’s face and realising something was very wrong.

“I remember looking out the window and praying it was a mistake. The consultant had such a look of sorrow on his face I knew it was going to be bad. I was lying on the bed, my whole body shaking.”

The doctor told them he was very sorry but their baby had severe spina bifida. Isobel said she had never even heard of anencephaly — absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp. “He was so kind and compassionate, so considerate. It took time for it to sink in.”

They were told the baby might pass away in the womb, or might survive an hour after being born, but was ultimately incompatible with life. The doctor told them it was not their fault or that of the baby, just something that happens. The devastated couple were advised to go home and think about what they wanted to do. However it was made clear the hospital, where they had received such excellent care on her first pregnancy, could not help if they chose a termination. “He said ‘it’s out of our hands if you choose to terminate the pregnancy’.”

Isobel remembers leaving the room and going out into the corridor with all the other pregnant women and wanting to hide herself.

She and her partner already have a toddler, a little boy. All she knew of abortion in the UK, she said, was of the “raw, bad way with suction. I said I’m not doing that with my baby.”

In her mind a huge fear built up of her carrying the pregnancy to term and the baby passing away in her arms. “It was a very long five weeks between then and when we decided what to do.”

She was petrified, she said, of travelling to the UK and being away from family and friends and had no idea where to turn for help. “But I wanted there to be care and compassion. This was a much-wanted pregnancy.”

A friend suggested a clinic in Cork which gave crisis pregnancy advice. In hindsight she thinks the clinic may not have been used to dealing with women who had received a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. There were a number of leaflets, she remembers, but she felt she was encouraged towards British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), rather than a hospital in Liverpool which was also mentioned. That is where most women who receive a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality and opt for termination, attend. BPAS, which is a charity, describes itself as the UK’s leading abortion care service.

“She said it was outstanding for a woman in my situation and I would get the care and compassion I was looking for,” recalls Isobel.

Deirdre Seery, chief executive of the Sexual Health Centre in Cork, said all the councilors there are fully qualified and accredited and would never recommend one clinic over another to a woman. “That would be against the law and we don’t do it,” she said yesterday.

The clinic is funded by the HSE’s crisis pregnancy programme.

Isobel said that after the appointment she rang BPAS and was given a choice of three clinics, choosing Doncaster in south Yorkshire. The couple decided to travel by ferry because they felt it would be more private.

She remembers speaking to a senior staff member at the Doncaster clinic. “I explained that my main concern was that I would be looked after in a compassionate way. I said it was a wanted pregnancy and would they look after me and she said yes.”

Isobel explained how she wanted to hold her baby after he was born and to give him a proper burial at home.

She was going on 17 weeks pregnant when they set sail on a Sunday in May. On the Monday morning, they went to the clinic where she was given tablets to take and told to come back the next day. She was petrified as they sat in the waiting room. They were brought to a room after noon and she felt some contractions starting. She met the midwife who asked if she wanted to insert the required tablets herself. “I said no because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it right… She didn’t ask me about the baby or what we wanted to do after he was born… She left and said she would be back in three hours time and that the contractions would be starting then.”

At that time more tablets were inserted and the contractions came on quickly then and she felt immense pressure. During her first delivery her waters had been broken first, and she had no idea why she was feeling so much pressure. There was nobody at her bedside to advise on what was happening, although she remembered the BPAS booklet advised a support person would be with you at all times.

“I had so much pressure in me. I was so scared. I rang a friend in Ireland and asked her ‘what is this’.” Isobel’s friend told her it sounded like her waters were about to break. They did, and she remembers the fluid splashing all over the floor, which was a great shock. The midwife did come in and clean it up and give her a gown.

“I thought she was going to stay and discuss what would happen next. I asked if things would progress faster now the waters were gone and she said ‘possibly’ and she left.”

By 4pm the pain was intense and Isobel said despite being told she would be given gas and air for pain relief, nothing was available. She explained how desolate she and her partner felt alone in the room. “As a person I feel that if someone does not want to help me then I won’t ask… We went through the contractions on our own.”

At 6.15pm they pressed the buzzer but nobody came. She asked her partner to look and see if the baby’s head was visible. She asked her partner to go and find the midwife but then was too scared for him to leave the room. Then a different midwife arrived and went to try and find the original midwife who eventually, she said, arrived and sat at the end of the bed.

“She said… ‘if you need to push, push’... I might as well have been in a forest on my own. I didn’t know what to do,” says Isobel.

Isobel holding a framed photograph of her son’s hand touching her finger
Isobel holding a framed photograph of her son’s hand touching her finger

She remembers trying to grasp the hand of the midwife when she felt a particularly strong pain but recalls the woman grabbed her hand back and folded her arms. Isobel remembers even pushing between the contractions because she wanted it all to be over as soon as possible. It was all such a stark contrast to her first labour at Cork University Maternity Hospital where she was given so much help and treated with kindness.

When Luke was finally delivered, what Isobel remembers is the “sound of silence”, the relief and sadness. The midwife asked if they wanted the baby’s body and Isobel asked that she would take him and clean him up. There was no offer to take the baby’s footprints as a memento for the family.

“I held him and told him how much he was loved and how sorry we were.”

She then told the midwife that her placenta had still not delivered, and, after giving Isobel an injection, she sent her to the toilet, again on her own, to pass it there. “Luckily everything came away.”

Isobel remembers being handed a BPAS questionnaire on her experience in the clinic. The midwife gave Luke to them after wrapping him in a gauzy-type material and putting him in a cardboard box, remarkably similar to a shoebox.

As she and her partner left, carrying Luke in the box, she remembers three nurses standing there as if they were waiting for the room to become vacant. As she left she asked the midwife if indeed the baby was a boy, as they had been told before travelling. She said that he was. They have no idea of his weight at birth because he was not weighed.

They returned afraid and exhausted to the hotel room, worried about preserving Luke’s body and wondering about using ice packs. They were sailing at 2pm the following day. On the boat Isobel felt immense sadness at the thought of her little baby alone below deck where the cars were kept.

By the time they reached home in Cork, Luke’s body had gone stiff and they were unable to do his footprints. They buried him with Isobel’s grandmother and had a lovely service with songs and poems and let off balloons.

“That was beautiful,” she recalls.

The trip cost £1,500 (€1,900), and the BPAS clinic cost £700.

Telling her sad story, Isobel was surrounded by other women involved with the Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR) group. They recalled how awful it is to have to travel after receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality but none had as awful an experience as Isobel. They spoke of the contrast in the care received at the Liverpool hospital, where they got all the support they needed, remembering being surrounded by doctors and midwives and even getting hugs.

* Not their real names

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