Ireland made history on Saturday when 66.4% voted yes to legalising abortion in a landslide referendum. As results came in, many visited a mural to pay tribute to Savita Halappanavar, who died from sepsis when she was refused an abortion. But Savita is not the only story – there are many others who allegedly suffered as a result of the eighth amendment. Just days before the polls opened, HuffPost’s Sophie Gallagher spoke to the doctor of another woman who believes she died as a result of the strict abortion law.
It’s three days until the Irish abortion referendum and I am speaking to Professor Louise Kenny, who is getting ready to fly home. Boarding a train bound for Manchester airport, she is about to undertake the same 30-mile trip back across the Irish sea that nearly 170,000 women have been forced to make since 1983 after having potentially life-saving terminations.
“I’ll be there in a couple of hours,” says the obstetric specialist, who currently works at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, and is travelling on this occasion to cast her vote in a historic ballot that will decide whether the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution – which places the right to life of un unborn child equal to that of the mother – should be repealed.
One of the women who made that journey in 2010 was Kenny’s patient, 40-year-old Michelle Harte, who travelled to England to have an abortion that would allow her to continue a vital drug trial for her stage-four cancer.
Less than 12 months later she was dead, leaving behind her nine-year-old son. “I think about it every day,” reflects Kenny. “Michelle died prematurely because of the eighth amendment.”
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The women first met when Michelle’s oncology team, who had been treating her for a malignant melanoma since 2001 on the Cork University campus, found the mother-of-one was eight weeks into an unplanned pregnancy.
While on the surface this might have seemed a blessing to a suffering family, in reality what it meant was that – under international good practice guidelines – the experimental immunotherapy Michelle was having, would have to stop.
And the advanced nature of her cancer meant no one thought she would live long enough without her treatment plan to give birth either.
Kenny, who was working there at the time, was assigned to Michelle to discuss her options. “When we first met she was thrilled about the baby; she’d been told she couldn’t get pregnant because of the amount of chemotherapy she’d had.” But within 48 hours she realised otherwise. “This was going to compromise her life.”
Under the eighth amendment, the only terms under which a woman can have a termination in the republic is when her life is at risk by not having so. Given the severity of Michelle’s cancer status, Kenny thought she would satisfy this criteria. But the hospital ethics committee did not agree.
Although not a legally binding body, to not follow their advice would put Kenny and her team at risk of a substantial jail sentence for breaking the law. Her hands were tied. “I can’t describe how awful the feeling is, to say to a woman ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do what I have been trained to do, at the time in your life when you need me to do it the most’.”
“We quite frequently look women in the eye and say your baby is going to die during this pregnancy but I can’t offer you any further treatment in this country. It is a conversation I am sick of having,” she says.
I found it morally and ethically bankrupt…’
Unable to perform an abortion, and unable to continue the cancer treatment, Michelle, and her partner Neil Doolan, were left floundering in a medical no-man’s land for several weeks, with her condition worsening daily. “I found it morally and ethically bankrupt,” says Kenny.
After deciding the only avenue available to the family was to travel abroad for a termination, the doctors faced yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Kenny was not allowed to give an official handover to doctors in the UK, and would have to send Michelle in blind. “If we formally pick up a phone, send a fax, send an email, then that is actually procurement of a termination and that again comes with a custodial jail sentence,” explains Kenny.
Instead she handed over the details of colleagues in Liverpool and the family were left to make her own travel arrangements, booking her own flights and hotel. After further delays (because Michelle didn’t have a passport), by the time the couple were boarding the plane, Michelle was so weak and sick she had to be physically carried.
Thinking about sending her patient – a woman with stage four cancer in the early stages of pregnancy – on a flight alone, without any medical support, Kenny says: “It comes with a strange mixture of guilt, pain, sorrow, shame.”
Although the termination was successful, by the time Michelle got back from the UK it has been at least five weeks since her last immunotherapy session and her cancer had progressed. In November 2011, a year later, Michelle died.
“Her treatment at the hands of the eight amendment as appalling,” says Kenny.
Although Michelle’s case seems extreme, she is not the only high profile death in Ireland which pro-repeal voters claim occurred as a direct result of the eight amendment.
The most famous in recent years being 31-year-old dentist Savita Halappanavar, from Galway, who died in 2012 from a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks when her doctors would not perform an abortion even though it was clear the foetal death was inevitable. The miscarriage took seven days to fully unfold.
“If Savita was facing that situation in a different jurisdiction [outside Ireland] then we wouldn’t all know her name because she would be alive today,” says Kenny.
The same year as Savita, Aisha Chithira, 31, died after leaving a Marie Stopes clinic in London – having had to travel from Ireland before the procedure. The inquest into her death last month found there had been repeated failures with her discharge, with nurses allowing her to leave despite her vomiting.
And the only reason we aren’t aware of more women “who’ve been irreparably harmed or killed”, says Kenny, is because of patient confidentiality, by which she is bound. She says that anecdotally she can account for at least 60 to 80 women per week coming through the doors of the Liverpool Women’s Hospital and giving Irish addresses when asked. “That’s just one hospital,” she says.
Kenny says that the vote – which would see abortion up to 12 weeks essentially unrestricted, and after that just women whose health is at risk or those with fatal foetal abnormalities (FFA) – is simply about addressing the harm that the eighth amendment does to women.
“As an Irish Catholic and a woman whose career is about loving women and pregnancy, I’m about as pro-life as you can get. But I’m also pro-repeal because women come first,” says Kenny.
As for Michelle’s family, her son now has to grow up without a mother. “When you are a parent, every single month and every single day matters.”