ALISON O'CONNOR: State casting women adrift in their most desperate hour of need

Kate O'Connell's son had a 10% chance of being born alive. If a scan had revealed a genetic foetal defect, she would have had an abortion.

THE personal is political, or so the feminist slogan, which originated in the 1960s, tells us.

The phrase came to mind as I listened to the story of a woman who had to travel to the UK for an abortion in recent weeks.

I don’t know the woman well, but I know a member of her family very well. I got regular updates on the unfolding situation, in all its awfulness, over a number of weeks. I’m going to refer to the woman who had the abortion as my friend, to keep it simple.

She has one child and would have been delighted with a second, although, for genetic reasons, there was a concern about possible complications, so news of the pregnancy was kept within close family circles. However, when she was 16 weeks pregnant, the woman and her partner learned that there would not be a happy ending and they reluctantly decided on a termination.

Despite all we’ve heard from other couples in the group, Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR), and their experiences, it still felt sickeningly unreal that I knew someone living through it. The couple were going through exactly the difficulties we have been told about. Sure enough, my friend and her partner left the Dublin maternity hospital, where they had received the bad news, without information on what choices they had. It’s impossible to blame the hospital or individual doctors. After all, there is the dark spectre of the law hanging over them. They subsequently received information from a Well Woman Centre.

It’s the little details that can really irritate in a crisis like this — such as my friend’s partner realising, just a few days before they were due to travel to the UK, that his passport was out of date and that he could not accompany her on this heartbreaking trip.

The Ryanair website says that you do not need a passport to travel to the UK, but the person on the customer service line had a different story. Instead, my friend’s sister was drafted in to go with her. There were, of course, any amount of fibs told about why time off work was needed and why they were travelling away from home. I heard all these details as they unfolded second-hand. The family were desperately upset at what my friend was going through and felt useless, because there was nothing they could actually do. They felt very angry at how our politicians had failed their sister, who faced such a horrible situation and was being forced to travel away from home, and from them, to have it sorted out.

The positive news is that the termination went as well as it possibly could, and she returned home as planned. She received good and sympathetic medical care from her GP and had been recovering in recent weeks. Then, last weekend, she was at home, doing some work around the house, when she felt something shift inside her. When she went to the bathroom, there was something hanging down. She pulled it and it came away. The doctor told her, the next day, that it was the placenta. It was another reminder of what had happened, not as if she needed one, but also of how easily obstetric complications can arise in such a situation, and again how she was ‘lucky’, in the circumstances, that it did come away.

Thinking of how the personal can be so political, if I was my friend, I may be tempted to run from the door any TD who may call to my door canvassing ahead of the general election. I would certainly find it a massive, if not impossible, effort to be civil if this was a politician who had kept schtum in the last few years on abortion, and belonged to a party that did not pledge to do something quickly, if elected to government.

My friend does not live in Dublin, so she has no chance of being a constituent of Fine Gael councillor, Kate O’Connell, who is a pharmacist. She spoke this week about how she, and her husband, were told at a 20-week scan that their son had serious birth defects. They subsequently discovered that while there were awful complications, there was no genetic defect; their foetus had a 10% chance of being born alive, surviving surgery and living a normal, unaffected life.

As it happened, her son spent over a month in hospital, the first week of that with his guts outside his body, as doctors attempted to fit them inside him and close the hole in his abdominal wall.

Happily, Pierce, now 4, made an incredible recovery and is about to start school. But Kate O’Connell, who is standing as a general election candidate for Fine Gael in the Dublin Bay South constituency, said that her options in this country were so limited it made the experience all the harder.

Kate O’Connell speaks of her relatively privileged position, and I use that term very advisedly, in that she was Dublin-based, had the money, if she needed it, to travel, and as well as herself and her husband having some medical background, there were also two doctors in the family.

In contrast, my friend lives far away from Dublin, would have found it a struggle to get the money together, and was not able to access information easily.

What they shared, though, was the sense of disbelief that the State, of which they are both citizens, and in which they both pay taxes, essentially cast them adrift at their time of need.

Kate O’Connell said she genuinely “thought it was curtains” and had decided, if the child had a serious genetic defect, and if there was no chance of survival outside the womb, that she would travel.

It is, she rightly said, “barbaric” to expect women to have to travel for a termination in these circumstances, just as my friend had to a few weeks ago.

At present, Kate O’Connell is heavily pregnant with her third child. This timing, to my mind, makes it all the more courageous, that as well as telling the story of that frightening pregnancy, she said that every woman should have the choice whether to continue with a pregnancy regardless of the circumstances. She would want very strict time limits, somewhere around 10 weeks.

I’m a constituent of Dublin Bay South, so Kate O’Connell will, presumably, be one of those politicians canvassing my doorstep during the general election campaign. I won’t need to ask her stance on this issue, but I certainly will be posing it to any other candidate that cares to call.

It is, she rightly said, “barbaric” to expect women to have to travel for a termination in these circumstances, just as my friend had to


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