'How Do You Bring a Body Home?': The Woman Forced to Carry an Unviable Pregnancy
In Ireland, abortion is forbidden in nearly all circumstances—including if the fetus has a fatal genetic condition. Under this dehumanizing law, Claire Cullen-Delsol was forced to continue her pregnancy despite knowing the child would die after birth.
Photo by Tomas Mikula via Stocksy
"No-one mentions the lack of consent in maternity care, because of the Eighth Amendment. It just doesn't get any airtime. People don't seem to care that it's OK for pregnant women not to have the right to consent." Claire Cullen-Delsol sits in her kitchen, wearing a black sweater with "REPEAL" printed starkly across the chest, while her two-year-old son Nathan plays in the background. "I've had three pregnancies and I didn't realize until my third that my consent wasn't needed for procedures to be carried out on me. And it scares the crap out of me."
Ireland's Eighth Amendment to the constitution was voted into law in 1983. It reads, "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." In short, a fetus is given the same life rights as the person carrying it. Even shorter—no abortion.
That one sentence cast a shadow over Irish womanhood. Between 1980 and 2015, 165,438 women travelled to England for abortions (it's likely that the number is much higher, as the data collected was from people who provided Irish addresses). And so women travel. They get buses and ferries and planes still, to Manchester and Liverpool, Essex and London. Often, they return on the same day—bleeding, in pain, disoriented, shamed. The process is expensive and humiliating.
Some women cannot travel and are forced to carry a fetus to term. In one of the most shocking and high profile cases in Ireland, a refugee known only as Miss Y arrived in the country to claim asylum in March 2014. A week later, she found out that she was pregnant and requested that she travel overseas for an abortion. She stated that the baby was conceived due to rape and became suicidal. She was refused. In August, after a protracted hunger strike in a maternity hospital, a baby boy was delivered prematurely through cesarean section. Ms Y was returned to her state accommodation a week later. She has since sued the government for damages
The next year, Claire Cullen-Delsol went through a government-mandated personal hell of her own. She was pregnant with her third child and aware that something was wrong. "The day of the 20 week scan, I was just so anxious and I was so frightened and I couldn't figure out why. I knew certain things were weird—my bump was really big and everyone was commenting on how huge it was."
The scan confirmed that the baby—a girl, who Cullen-Delsol and her husband Wayne named Alex—had a bilateral cleft palate. Cullen-Delsol thought, "Fair enough, she'll just have a differently-shaped face." Then cysts were found on the placenta. The brain wasn't developing properly. There was a problem with kidney function.
Cullen-Delsol went for an amniocentesis, which samples amniotic fluid to test for genetic abnormalities. "You expect to go in and have your scan and go home with your picture and put it up on Facebook and that's the end of it," she says. "I kept hoping for Down's Syndrome. I kept thinking that maybe it was just a funny presentation of Down's Syndrome."
A few days later, Cullen-Delsol was painting the kitchen with her partner when they got the call. It was Patau syndrome, a severe chromosomal disorder with a high mortality rate. "Every single cell in her body had 3 copies of chromosome 13 instead of 2," Claire explained. The extra genetic material in Alex's body was causing her development to be abnormally disrupted.
You can't ask someone, how do you bring a body home? Who do you talk to about it?
"We just sat on the couch," Cullen-Delsol says. "There was this really weird noise, and I couldn't figure out what it was. I turned to my husband to ask him, 'Can you hear that?' and I realized that it was actually coming from me. It was this wail, this weird wailing, howling noise."
"All I wanted was to be induced. I just wanted to give birth. That's all. I didn't think that I was asking too much." Cullen-Delsol went to the doctor and asked to be induced. "I didn't realize what an abortion at that stage was, which is just [inducing and] delivering the baby. And he said no. Not here.
"I had to say, 'How do I end this pregnancy? How do I get a termination? Do I go abroad? What do I do?" I had to ask it before they could even mention it. I don't know why. I think it's the Regulation of Information Act, or their interpretation of it means that they can't bring up abortion or be the ones to suggest it. So I had to ask, which was really hard, because I couldn't even say my own name at that point." She was recommended a hospital in Liverpool.
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The cost was 2,000 euros, which the couple could ill-afford. They already had two children, Nathan and then eight-year-old Carla, and the logistics were impossible for them to comprehend in such a short time. "You can't ask someone, how do you bring a body home? Who do you talk to about it? How would I tell Carla what I was doing? Would I leave her and lie to her and then come home with either no bump, no baby and maybe a body, or maybe nothing, or do I tell her what's happening and leave her in what would be the worst state. For how long?" She resigned herself. "It was the best of a horrible set of choices. I just couldn't figure out a good way to carry on, so I said fine." She stayed.
As the pregnancy progressed, it became worse. Alex didn't have a stomach, which led doctors to believe that she didn't have a mouth. Amniotic fluid was building up in Cullen-Delsol's womb, putting pressure on Alex. She also had a heart condition. Cullen-Delsol stopped functioning. She didn't eat or sleep. At night, she dreamed of delivering dead babies. She had no choice.
"I just had to stay pregnant, and that was enough. It infuriates me, that that could possibly be an attitude that could be held about me. That I and the things that I do and the functions that I perform in the world are absolutely meaningless when I'm pregnant. I just have to be pregnant. It's a horrible, dehumanizing feeling."
When Claire did eventually miscarry and deliver towards the end of her second trimester, it was a relief. "The relief wasn't that my girl had died, it was that that part was over and that the worst had finally happened and that the dread was gone and the nightmares about what was going to happen would stop and that we could move onto the next phase, where I could actually do something."
"It was so sad, but it was sad in a very different way. It wasn't that awful distress, it wasn't that fear. The fear was gone. Once the fear was gone and the love was able to kick in, it was a totally different situation. Had I experienced [the delivery] three or four weeks prior [when Patau Syndrome was first diagnosed], without all that dread and fear and anxiety, it would have been a totally different experience for me. It would have been sad and awful and huge grief and a loss, but it wouldn't have had the same trauma and that impact as it has had now."