Oonagh McDermott’s first pregnancy, she says, was a “brutalisation”.
At fourteen weeks, she found out that the baby had a fatal foetal abnormality. Known as anencephaly, the condition means the bones of the skull do not form properly, resulting in severe damage to the baby’s brain.
Her doctor informed her that while her baby would almost certainly die in utero, they couldn’t terminate the pregnancy. She was told: “There’s nothing we can do. Off you go and see how you get on.”
McDermott, who lives in Edenderry, in Ireland, told HuffPost UK: “You could see the misshapen head on the screen. All the vital signs were very poor and there was no brain function.”
But doctors were not able to abort the pregnancy because terminations are currently illegal in the Irish Republic if a heartbeat has been recorded, unless the life of the mother is at risk, including from suicide.
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“They sent me home and told me: ‘When you think it’s all gone, come back to us.’ They were expecting me to miscarry in my own home,” McDermott, said.
Now a mother of two, McDermott will be voting Yes to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the constitution on Friday. If passed, it will allow the government to change the law and permit women in Ireland to legally abort within 12 weeks of pregnancy. If after 12 weeks, a woman’s life is threatened or there could be serious harm to her health, two doctors will consider whether to allow the procedure.
The maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion in the country at present is 14 years in prison.
The 54-year-old is campaigning and canvassing for the vote on Friday in the hope that other women won’t have to go through her devastating experience that she described as “something out of a horror movie”.
Back in 2001, she was sent home from hospital with the news that there was no hope for her child and no advice on the trauma to come, McDermott recalls: “The next day I was exceptionally distressed. I asked them to evacuate the pregnancy and they refused. I called again the following day and explained I was in a really bad state emotionally, but they said ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’ Those were the exact words. They said it would have to happen naturally.”
She was in pain and bleeding heavily, and eventually miscarried at home. “It was a brutalisation, an absolute disgrace. And my story isn’t as bad as some. Put it this way, I was never told to expect a whole foetus, but that’s what I got. I’ll never forget it – looking into my hands and just screaming.”
McDermott believes the foetus must have died shortly after the scan where his condition was revealed, and she had to carry it until she naturally miscarried. She returned to hospital, where it was confirmed her pregnancy had ended. A week after being sent home, she began haemorrhaging due to an infection. Emergency surgery followed.
For McDermott, who is a part-time school secretary, a change in the law would have made her experience crucially different. “I wish someone had explained to me at that scan ‘You have a choice, you can evacuate it now or you can wait. If you wait, this is what will happen. If you evacuate it now, this is how it will be.’
“So repealing the eighth, if that makes way for legislation that will allow abortion for whatever set of reasons, they won’t have to wait until a baby with anencephaly is dead. A woman will be able to be part of that decision, whereas I never was.”
McDermott used private healthcare for her second pregnancy, though sadly she miscarried again. Since the foetus had died, and no heartbeat could be recorded, she was asked what she would like to do.
“I will never forget those words, they were so powerful. My obstetrician asked what I wanted and I said I really wanted to take it away and she said, ‘no problem, come in tomorrow.’”
A further pregnancy saw McDermott miscarry one of the twins she was carrying, though oldest daughter Ellen is now 16. Ellen’s younger sibling, Tara, was born with Down’s syndrome 14 years ago.
Her daughter’s condition means McDermott has also been very affected by the widespread claim from the No campaign, that a repeal of the 8th amendment would mean more children with Down’s Syndrome would be terminated – despite Government assurances that disability will not be grounds to end a pregnancy.
The Love Both campaign recently launched a video featuring 23-year-old Conor O’Dowd, who has Down’s syndrome, saying: “I love my life. Please save babies with Down’s syndrome.” It came after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was “wrong” for the group to use people with the condition in campaign posters.
As the parent of a child with Down’s syndrome, McDermott says she is offended by the use of the condition to promote a No vote. “I’ve heard people say ’if this comes in, we won’t have any Down’s syndrome population, like they have in Iceland. I completely refute that allegation, because after 12 weeks it will still be illegal to get a termination for disability.
“I think it’s very sinister because Down’s Syndrome Ireland came out about five weeks ago and specifically said they do not want Down’s Syndrome used as an argument by either side in this referendum.”
McDermott is adamant that both of her own daughters should be given a choice about carrying a child. “It’s a matter of us wanting our children to have a choice. They may very well choose to keep the child, but we need them to know they have a choice either way and that they’ll be supported by us either way.”