For the first time yesterday, the Irish woman who brought the ‘D versus Ireland’ case spoke out publicly about the “very real tragedy” that led her to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Deirdre Conroy decided to reveal her identity following the death of Savita Halappanavar.
“The last straw for me was what happened to Savita Halappanavar,” she said. She was on holidays when she saw the story of Savita’s death pop up on ticker tape on a TV news channel.
She froze to the spot, thinking the Galway in the story must be a Galway in India. But it wasn’t and the helter-skelter of emotions that she had felt in 2002 suddenly came flooding back.
In Jan 2002, she was 39, the mother of two boys aged 10 and 12, and delightedly expecting twins.
But, at 14 weeks’ pregnant, the initial results of an amniocentesis test revealed one of the twins had died. Three weeks later, full test results revealed the second twin had Edward’s Syndrome, a condition which usually ends in miscarriage or death shortly after birth because of heart abnormalities, kidney malformations, and other internal organ disorders.
“She [the doctor] said there is nothing we can do, nothing in this country. The thing was I thought there would be special treatment. It’s a common enough occurrence. There are several hundred of these cases... I assumed there would be a situation in our hospitals where there would be a sympathetic arrangement where there is this woman who’s got terrible news, she wants these babies but she can’t have them... But we have to say ‘go home sort it out yourself or carry on’,” she said in a RTÉ radio interview on Today with PK.
A termination in these circumstances could not be sanctioned in this country.
Deirdre was just 17 weeks’ pregnant and facing carrying the dead foetus for another 23 weeks. She’d have to endure the excessive bloating that accompanies such pregnancies, and the fatigue, and somehow find the chutzpah to receive good wishes and comments on her pregnancy from people who were blissfully unaware of what was really going on in her womb.
The day after she received the news, a distressed Deirdre wrote an open letter to the then Taoiseach, the attorney general and the Catholic Church. It was the eve of the 2002 general election and, unbeknownst to her, there would be an abortion referendum in a matter of months.
She wanted to hand-deliver the letter to the attorney general but was warned by a barrister friend that she could be stopped from leaving the country. She never sent the letter.
“I asked for their response and... I asked to be listened to and to be taken into consideration,” she said.
In the end, she decided to go to Belfast for a termination, where she was given medication to induce the birth. Under their abortion laws, there is provision for abortion when a foetus has Edward’s Syndrome. She was blown away at the wealth of pamphlets and information that was made available to women on antenatal testing and the choices open to them if their baby has fatal foetal abnormalities.
In the North, she was offered a baby coffin, something “like a shoe box”. And would she like a photo of the baby, they asked? When Baby Tom was delivered, she got to “to see him and touch him” and brought him for burial in a quiet, calm burial ground.
However, in the following weeks, she was still losing a lot of uterine tissue and instinctively, she knew something wasn’t right. She contacted the one doctor at the National Maternity Hospital who knew of her decision to terminate.
As soon as he examined her, he ordered a Dilation and Curettage and put her under a general anaesthetic. Deirdre was told that they had “got you just in time” as there was a risk of sepsis, the infection that killed Savita Hallapannavar 10 years later. Any further prevarication and she would have been unlikely to survive.
Her time in hospital was marked with lie after lie. She told the nurses she’d had an earlier miscarriage, not a termination. She says she “had to”. “You get a different reaction [with a miscarriage] that it’s nature taking its course.”
But Deirdre couldn’t shrug off what had taken place and she wanted to “do something to save other women”.
“You think you are an [Irish] national and will be protected and then they turn their back on you,” she said.
In the run-up to the 2002 abortion referendum, she again sent her story in an open letter to the Government and to a national newspaper, where it was published, provoking huge reaction, under the pseudonym “Deirdre de Barra”.
She anonymously brought the ‘D versus Ireland’ case to the European Court of Human Rights. It took four years.
The Irish Government successfully defended the case at the second stage on the grounds that if she had gone to the Irish courts, “remorseless logic would have been applied” as counsel said, she had “compelling reasons to be treated in Ireland”.
In essence, she would have been allowed to have the abortion here had she gone to the courts.
The following year, 17-year-old Miss D, who was in care and four months’ pregnant with a baby with a fatal foetal abnormality, went to the High Court to challenge a decision by the Health Service Executive to stop her leaving the State for an abortion. She won the case on the grounds that she was free to travel but there was no attempt by the State to apply “remorseless logic” and allow her to have the abortion here.