Denise (2016) – Northern Ireland

Denise Phelan was denied a legal abortion three years ago in circumstances so extreme she still finds it harrowing to speak about it. “My anger wakes me up at night. It’s a deep, almost in-the-bone anger,” she says. She and her husband, Richard Gosnold, are also still grieving for the loss of their baby, Alenja. Their trauma has been prolonged and they feel it is too late now to try for another pregnancy.

She became pregnant in late 2015 at age 40, but testing after the 10-week scan brought devastating news. There was a fatal genetic disorder, which meant that the foetus would die in the womb or at birth. One doctor told the couple: “You can go to the mainland,” meaning travel to England. However, Phelan suffers from extreme and debilitating migraine, which is triggered by stress. She became very ill and could not travel. After researching her rights, she found there was a mental health clause that could enable her to have a termination in Northern Ireland. Phelan had recently survived several years of intense depression. The couple were terrified about the potential long-term impact of the dilemma she was now facing. But no one was willing to refer her for an abortion in Belfast.

“I felt as though this wall of religious and political hatred had descended around us,” says Phelan. “We were seeing all these doctors, but it was like a nail was being driven into you and each one of them was driving it one blow further. I realised no one was going to help us. It was cruel beyond belief. It was mental torture. We were just set adrift, totally alone. We had no choices. I had to give up. I had to go out and get maternity clothes and people were congratulating me and asking when the baby was due. I was sent to a bereavement midwife at the same time as the baby was still alive and active in my womb. I had to go to antenatal classes. We were also told that if the baby was still alive at birth she would be in pain and have to live her brief life on a morphine drip.”

When she was 36 weeks pregnant, Phelan fell as she was out walking. At a scan the next day she said to the doctor, “She’s gone, isn’t she?” The baby died on a Wednesday. The following Monday, birth was induced.

“I cry every day,” says Phelan. “I had postnatal depression and both of us have had suicidal thoughts. We both suffer from insomnia. I had to leave my job.” Gosnold, who is an artist, was offered medication and put on a waiting list for counselling.

Source: ‘The doctors in Northern Ireland knew my baby would die. But I was refused an abortion’ – The Guardian, Oct 6, 2019