I was forced to go to London for an abortion, and now I'm fighting to change the laws in Northern Ireland

I'm sharing my painful journey and determination to help other women.

04 Jul 2019

Sarah Ewart travelled from Belfast to London for an abortion after finding out she had a medical condition and her baby wouldn’t survive the pregnancy. Now she is awaiting a landmark High Court decision to have the healthcare laws changed in Northern Ireland. Here, To mark our July digital issue starring Yvonne Strahovski, she shares her painful journey and determination to help other women to GLAMOUR.

Jason and I got married in May 2013 after seven years together, and it was later that year we were thrilled to be expecting our first child.

We went to a private clinic for our 19-week scan as we desperately wanted to see the baby image in 3D and find out the gender. But our joy of finding out we were having a little girl quickly turned to worry when the sonographer noticed something wrong with the scan. She couldn’t tell us exactly what it was but I’d need to go the hospital urgently to see a senior consultant.

We anxiously rushed to the hospital to wait for a senior consultant. He told us that there was something wrong with the baby, but we had to return the following morning for further tests and to, ‘prepare ourselves for the worst.’ Shocked and devastated at the news, we went home not knowing what was ahead of us.

Further scans confirmed a diagnosis of anencephaly, which is when a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. This meant she wouldn’t be able to survive by herself and would die before or after childbirth. My husband and I were a complete emotional mess, and couldn’t bring ourselves to speak. Thankfully my mum was with us to speak with the consultants.

As soon as I got home, I immediately did research into anencephaly and joined a Facebook group of mothers who had been through the same, but had chosen termination.

I also had a grandparent who had a baby with the same condition, but after a very difficult pregnancy, the baby didn’t survive.

It was then I decided that I no longer wanted to continue with the pregnancy. Feeling emotional, we returned to the hospital to tell them our decision, only to be told they could do nothing for us. We just had to continue with the pregnancy, and that was that.

It was a very scary time. We suddenly went from being so happy from buying our first home, getting married and expecting a baby girl, to finding out she was going to die. Worse still, that no professional could help us with our wishes of a termination for fear of ‘going to prison’.

Feeling helpless, we went straight to search the Yellow Pages. We didn’t even know what we were looking for but came across a Family Planning Clinic in Belfast and arranged an appointment. Once we got there, we explained the situation to an advisor who said they could only sit in while I make the phone call to a UK call centre to book an abortion. The next available appointment was in Liverpool but couldn’t accept me because of how far along I was at 20-weeks. Which only left us with an available appointment in London. I had no choice but to fly out.

As we left the clinic, we were met by three pro-life protestors standing outside. They looked at my stomach and started shouting, ‘murderer’ and that, I’ll ‘never forget this for the rest of my life’.

One of the girls even followed us to our car and I couldn’t even close the car door properly as she was in the way shouting at me. People on the street were stopping and staring at me, and it was just the most awful experience. Before this happened to me, I had always believed abortion was done for social reasons, never thinking about the medical reasons for it.

A few days later we were on the plane to London and had to mentally prepare for the procedure the next day. It was such a scary time. Once we arrived at the abortion clinic, I noticed there wasn’t enough seats in the waiting room for the number of girls who were there. It occurred to me that many women there were wanting to lose a baby, while we were there losing a baby that was very much wanted.

After speaking with a nurse, I was shown to a cubicle with concrete walls and a shower curtain to prepare for theatre. Because I was so far along in the pregnancy, I’d needed to be put to sleep during the procedure.

I was terrified, and even more so that my mum and husband were not allowed in with me during the prep. When it was my turn to get my canula put in, a nurse had left the doors in front of me open. I could see the girl ahead of me literally having the procedure carried out, which made me even more anxious. I’d cried throughout the whole thing.

When I awoke from the procedure, I was told that I couldn’t fly within 24 hours and had to stay in London for the extra day. It had been the scariest thing I had ever experienced. I should have been allowed this healthcare at home without flying to London. The condition that my little girl had also meant I had a higher chance of conceiving another baby with the same condition. I couldn’t face going through this again.

My story had already been made public and I had been talking to various media to raise awareness. In 2015, we made appointments to meet with 108 MLAs (elected reps) over a two-and-a- half year process, to try and get the healthcare laws changed. We realised then that we were not going to make a breakthrough. We then brought the case to Belfast High Court to challenge the law in violation of its human rights obligations.

We are not saying every baby with this condition needs to be aborted, we are simply saying the option needs to be there.

Amnesty International worked with us in taking our case to the High Court and later the Supreme Court in 2018. While five out of seven judges were in favour, this was still not enough to issue a formal ruling. So I had to launch the case again at the High Court as a ‘victim’ in 2019. We are now waiting for the judge to make a final decision, and hope for the best.

By retelling my story, it has helped me through the process of my grief. Once it went public, other women and families were ing me with the same feelings of panic and anxiety. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of my family. We’ve also had so much support from the public and the Royal College of Obstetricians and gynaecologists. My consultant had written to the Health Minister and had said the baby I’d been carrying was like, ‘somebody being on a life support machine. And this is about at which point to turn that machine off’.

People call us campaigners - we’re not. We are unfortunately a family like many, stuck in this awful situation where there are women and mums who need help. I’m not going to stop until we get the law changed. This is about much needed healthcare, and something we should have access to with our own consultants and teams at home.

For further information on Sarah’s case please visit: www.amnesty.org.uk