Travelling to England for an abortion was my only option

Jennifer Ryan and her husband © Private

We found out we were expecting our second child in June 2012. My husband and I were thrilled. We booked an early scan for later that week. They said I was seven weeks pregnant. We were delighted when we found out our baby was due on our anniversary, it felt that it was meant to be.

I had some nausea and tiredness with the pregnancy, but otherwise I felt good. I had a couple of medical check-ups and all was looking well. I wasn’t really showing but wasn’t concerned as I had been the same during my first pregnancy.

That October, my husband and I went to hospital for our anomaly scan. I was 22 weeks pregnant.

We had decided to ask the sex as we had already put a deposit on a pram and I was very eager to get shopping! We were so excited to see our baby on the screen.

At the appointment, the sonographer was finding it hard to get a good view of the baby. After a few moments she went quiet. She continued scanning for a while and eventually said that she needed to speak to a doctor. At this point I had a feeling that all wasn’t as it should be, but I certainly was not expecting what was to come.


The Well Woman Centre in Dublin © Amnesty International / Eugene Langan

The sonographer asked us to go for a cup of tea and come back to see the doctor in half an hour.

After what seemed like a lifetime the doctor called us in. She scanned me for over half an hour in silence. The first words she said were, “It’s bad news, guys”. She explained that there was no fluid surrounding our baby so it was very hard to see exactly what was wrong, but from what she could see, it didn’t look good.

Our baby had no fluid because she had no kidneys; our baby’s lungs would never develop or function. They would not be able to intubate or give steroids to help her lungs as there was “no point”. She also had a very severe form of spina bifida — so severe that even if everything else was working correctly it would still kill her.

Our baby was sadly incompatible with life.

The consultant told us that we had two options: we could either continue with the pregnancy and receive weekly scans to check for a heartbeat until it stopped, or we could travel to England for a termination. Even though our baby had no chance of surviving, I could not ask for an abortion at the hospital where I’d been getting checks and scans. We live in Ireland, where abortion is illegal — even in cases like ours.

My husband and I were told to come back the next morning for further tests. We drove home completely heartbroken, afraid and upset. Our world as we knew it had ended and we were in complete limbo.

National Maternity Hospital, Dublin © Amnesty International/Eugene Langan

The following day we went back to the hospital with my mother for support. I was rescanned by the consultant and a foetal medicine midwife. Again they told us the prognosis was the same: our baby was never going to survive — her condition was 100% fatal.

That evening we told our six-year-old daughter the bad news. It was so heartbreaking to have to tell her that her much longed-for sibling would die. She asked a lot of questions and we answered them as honestly as possible, in a child-friendly way. We had been given an information sheet on how to tell children news like this. That night we all slept in the same bed as none of us wanted to be without each other.


We chose a name for our baby and looked into local graveyards. We should have been looking at cots and buggies but instead we were looking at graveyards.

Over the weekend we discussed our options. Due to the severity of our baby’s condition she was not protected in my womb and was slowly being crushed by my organs, which was a very distressing thought for me and would be very distressing experience for our baby. If our baby survived the remainder of the pregnancy she would either die in distress during labour or in the moments after she was born. She would never take a breath and there would be a pain specialist on standby to administer medication as soon as she was born. We had to terminate this pregnancy — for her and for me.

After a difficult weekend, we went to meet the consultant. She rescanned me and asked me if we had made any decisions. We told her we had decided to travel to England. As I was already 23 weeks pregnant and the cut off for medical terminations in England is 24 weeks we didn’t have much time.

We were given the phone number for Liverpool’s women’s hospital and told to send them the scans, results and reports from our hospital. I arranged an appointment for the following Monday, by which time I would be 24 weeks pregnant. We spoke with the bereavement service in the hospital there who organised a coffin and said she would arrange the forms needed for us to bring our daughter home.

We went out and bought our daughter a blanket to wrap her in. We also bought matching teddies — 12 in total, all little animals, so she would have six and we would keep the other six. We thought this was the fairest way because we knew we wouldn’t be able to share just one teddy between the three of us!

Baby toys © TiggerT on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

It was less than a fortnight since my 22-week scan. So much had changed.

We tried to get a couple of hours’ sleep before heading to get the 2.30am ferry to Holyhead. My husband drove from Holyhead to Liverpool through the night to the hospital.

At the hospital, a consultant rescanned me. We asked if there was any change or improvement — we were still wishing and hoping with all our hearts that something would change, but the consultant sadly said that there was no change, the condition was worse than the previous scans revealed and we were doing what was best for our daughter.

Hospital waiting room © kate hiscock on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

They were unsure whether she would have a cleft lip or if her spine would be covered by skin due to the lack of fluid which made scanning very difficult and we spoke briefly about that and other possible abnormalities that might be present and what she may look like. They brought us in forms to sign and tablets to soften my uterus and cervix to get it ready for induction.

They asked us if we wanted to have a post mortem done but because we would have to leave her in Liverpool for a week we chose not to — we already knew enough about her condition to know that it wasn’t genetic and it was ‘just one of those things’. We felt she had been through enough already and we didn’t want to receive a list of things wrong with our daughter.

It was early evening when they brought me in to be induced. It only took a couple of minutes before I was taken up to the labour ward.

Around midnight on Monday my labour started. At 9.08am on Tuesday morning my beautiful daughter Jessica was born. The room was silent. She was 28cm long and weighed just 1lb 6oz. She was perfect to us. She didn’t have a cleft lip but her spine wasn’t fully covered by skin and we could see evidence of her abnormalities in her legs. We asked the nurses to dress her for us as she looked so delicate. They took her away and took hand and foot prints and lovely photos for us and brought her back dressed in a beautiful hat and gown that had been donated by a charity.

Baby Jessica’s feet © Private

I was very unwell from all the medication I had taken during labour. After an hour or so the catholic priest came in for a blessing and naming ceremony. They gave us a lovely blessing certificate with her name and time and date of arrival to keep. These are the only things we have our daughter’s name on.

At 7pm on Tuesday I was discharged. We brought our daughter out in her coffin the hospital had organised for us and we headed off for the boat in Holyhead. We had contacted the ferry company before travelling and they had no problems with us bringing our daughter on board but we just couldn’t have her coffin in sight in the car. We arrived home at 2.30am — just 48 hours after we had left for that ferry in the middle of the night.

The following day our six-year-old came home from school to meet her sister. Both sets of parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews came to see her. We had another blessing with a local priest in our home and the following day we held her funeral and buried her in the local graveyard.

The priest did an amazing job and had even gone to the trouble of printing out booklets for the blessing and funeral for us. We consider ourselves lucky, as not everyone who travels has this opportunity to do this.

On the morning of the funeral we swapped blankets with her so we have the one she had been wrapped up in, and we gave her the blanket we had been sleeping with. We placed six of the teddies with her and wrapped her in my husband’s christening cardigan. Our daughter, nieces and nephews drew her pictures and wrote letters to her which we also put in her coffin. I gave her a piece of jewellery which I had since childhood and we said our final goodbyes.

We had three days with our daughter and it was nowhere near enough but it was the best we could, and we are so grateful that we had that time together with her. We did what we believe was right for our daughter — she didn’t suffer any pain or distress and just drifted off to sleep. We have a photo album full of photos of her with us, her blanket, matching teddies and little mementos from the hospital. Her whole lifetime fits into a box but it is something we cherish and will do forever.

We talk about Jessica daily and she is included in everything we do. She is the missing piece in our family which will never be replaced and she is forever in our hearts.

By Jennifer Ryan


Jennifer and her husband shouldn’t have had to travel for a termination, adding to the stress and trauma of the difficult experience they were already dealing with.

If she had had this operation in Ireland, Jennifer would be facing 14 years in prison. It’s time for Ireland to stop punishing women and denying them the healthcare they need and have a right to access.

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