Abandoned By a Nation

The Center filed a new case against Ireland to stop its health care system from turning its back on women in desperate need of help.

It’s nearly impossible to go through this life and not encounter a serious medical issue. In those moments of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, we desperately want information: about what has happened, what will happen, the choices we have, the consequences of our decisions. And we want that information from the people who should know best—doctors and other health professionals.

We filed another lawsuit this week against Ireland with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. A woman named Siobhán asked for our help to demand justice because of the horrendous treatment she experienced in her encounter with the Irish health care system, at a time when she was utterly vulnerable. When she needed doctors the most, they abdicated their responsibilities and abandoned her. They did so because of Ireland’s draconian law on abortion—a near absolute ban—and the deep-seated stigma it has instilled throughout the country.

Siobhán’s story is like many stories we hear coming out of Ireland. She and her husband were thrilled to give their 20-month old son a sibling. They even brought him to the 20-week ultrasound, in 2010, so he could see the sonogram image himself. But there wouldn’t be any joy that day.

A few minutes into the procedure, the sonographer told Siobhán that something was wrong. She did everything she could not to lose emotional control in an effort to avoid upsetting her son.

A doctor performed another scan and told her that she had the condition holoprosencephaly, a disorder caused by a chromosomal abnormality in which the fetus’ brain fails to fully develop. The doctor said that the fetus would likely die in the womb but could possibly go full term. But there was no chance of survival post birth. Then the doctor said, “In another jurisdiction, they would offer a termination, but obviously not in this country.” The doctor then advised Siobhán to carry on with the pregnancy “as normal.”

There was absolutely no way to continue “as normal.” The idea seems outrageous. It’s not hard to imagine the shock Siobhán felt. “It was as if we were in a bad dream,” she writes in her affidavit to the Human Rights Committee. “I was scared about how I was going to cope with potentially another 20 weeks of pregnancy.”

Perhaps even more stunning is the fact that Siobhán didn’t get any more information about her options. Not about what country might be able to help her, which hospitals specialized in her condition, what she could expect from a termination, whether she could count on emotional and medical support before and after the procedure, and how quickly she would need to make her plans. Nothing. She was abandoned by her doctors and by her country.

Siobhán joins many Irish woman who have suffered greatly under this callous law. “Ireland’s harsh policies made Siobhán fearful to even ask about her options and allowed her health care providers to simply give up on her once she made the decision to end her pregnancy,” says Johanna Westeson, the Center’s Regional Director for Europe, who filed the first action against Ireland with the Human Rights Committee in 2013.

Essentially booted from the Irish health care system, Siobhán had to gather enormous amounts of hard-to-find information and make the many complicated plans for having a serious medical procedure performed overseas. And she had to do this while keeping in mind the well-being of her son and taking a leave of absence from her job in an office without disclosing the reasons for her leave. Because of the deep-rooted stigma attached to abortion in Ireland, Siobhán felt compelled to keep the news about her failing pregnancy from nearly everyone she knew.

Like so many others, she traveled to Liverpool, home to a facility that has a reputation for high-quality, compassionate care. And not coincidentally, she described feeling like a criminal when she left her country—as so many women who had before her—because of all the circumstances and secrets kept.

In Liverpool, she received not only the information that all of us want in serious medical situations but counseling services that were so noticeably absent in her home country. But the Liverpool hospital could not help her after she had returned to Ireland. When she got home, Siobhán did not receive any bereavement counseling or other emotional support. She was left alone to deal with her grief and anger.

No matter how many times you hear the story of an Irish woman having “to travel”—the euphemism for pushing women to go abroad for the abortion services they can’t get at home—the details are never any less horrifying. What these women must do is not a crime. But the way they are treated by a heartless health care system truly is.