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How an Irish-American woman’s legal case helped spur Ireland’s abortion referendum

Amanda Mellet contested Ireland’s abortion ban at the United Nations — and won. (Sean and Yvette/For The Washington Post)

DUBLIN — On a shelf in Amanda Mellet’s bedroom sits a wooden box that holds the ashes of her baby girl. A small plaque bears the child’s name, Aoife, “beauty” in Gaelic, and marks the birthday that never was: Dec. 2, 2011.

The ashes are a private reminder of an experience at the center of a searching public debate over abortion, outlawed here even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and non-life-threatening risk to maternal health.

Ireland will decide by referendum on May 25 whether to repeal its constitution’s eighth amendment, one of the most severe abortion bans in the developed world. Approved by 67 percent of Irish voters in 1983, the amendment grants a mother and her unborn child an equal right to life. Seeking or providing an abortion in Ireland is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Now, polling suggests that a majority may vote to repeal. That would clear the way for lawmakers to debate proposed legislation allowing abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that in cases of fetal abnormalities or serious risks to the mother’s health.

The issue remains divisive. Several thousand people attended an anti-repeal rally in Dublin on Saturday. “Genuine health care is about saving lives, not ending them,” activist Cora Sherlock told the crowd.

But attitudes have shifted as the church’s political authority has declined, a result of transformations in technology and the economy and abuse scandals. Lawmakers, experts and pro-choice activists say opinion has also been galvanized by the stories of women, such as Mellet, who have ended their pregnancies at great personal cost — or died after being denied the procedure, as happened in the case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist.

“Amanda and the others, these are the people who’ve made the change in public opinion,” said Ivana Bacik, the leader of the Senate’s Labour Party and a scholar of criminal law.

The debate over whether to repeal the country's abortion ban is roiling Ireland. It's not the only place in Europe where the issue has caused a stir in the past (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Mellet has mostly stayed out of the media’s spotlight. But she is something of a household name here. In June 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that by compelling her to carry a dying fetus to term or travel abroad for an abortion, Ireland subjected her to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, while also violating her right to privacy. The U.N. decision required Ireland, for the first time, to compensate a woman for the expenses and emotional distress tied to an abortion. It also called on Ireland to amend its laws criminalizing abortion, including its constitution, if necessary. 

Mairead Enright, an Irish scholar of law and religion at the University of Birmingham, credits Mellet’s complaint to the United Nations with forcing the nation’s leaders to recognize Ireland’s divergence from international norms. 

“Being able to say ‘this is the scientific way, the European way, the international way’ created space for doctors, policymakers and experts,” Enright said. “Nothing so much was new in the abortion landscape, but what had changed was that within political circles, there was a willingness to listen to the stories, and having heard that information, they had to change their minds.”

Mellet has been sharing her experience for years: to other women forced to travel overseas to terminate their pregnancies, to politicians and to hospital directors. Recently, she began speaking at events building support for repeal. 

It was like being “thrown to the wolves,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post at a Dublin hotel. “You’re suddenly in this crisis mode and trying to make plans and contact another hospital in another country and book hotels and flights, and it’s not where your head should be. It should be focused on the diagnosis and the loss. Because I never had that chance: How do I get over this? How do I grieve?”

A lilting brogue overlays Mellet’s flat Midwestern tones. The 44-year-old Irish American charity worker was raised Unitarian outside of Detroit, in a post-Roe world where abortion rights were presumed. She wiped wisps of chestnut hair away from her deep-set blue eyes as she recounted how delighted she and her husband, James Burke, were to learn in the summer of 2011 that she was pregnant.

Everything appeared normal until a 21-week scan, on a Friday in November. The sonographer saw problems that required more tests. The results brought Mellet’s world crashing down: The fetus had Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards syndrome, and would die in her womb or upon delivery.

Ninety-five percent of babies with the chromosomal disorder die in utero. Of those born alive, most die within days or weeks after birth; about 5 to 10 percent live beyond a year. In Mellet’s case, serious heart malformations, as well as problems with the development of other organs, foreclosed any chance of survival.

A midwife told her she could continue the pregnancy or “travel” — to Mellet a euphemism that recalled “Ireland’s history of spiriting deviant women away in conditions of secrecy and shame.” She told the hospital that she planned to end her pregnancy, and, through the Irish Family Planning Association, she got an appointment at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital in Britain for about 10 days later. 

As her husband booked a hotel room and purchased Ryanair plane tickets, Mellet felt doubly punished: “Not only did we have to make this horrible decision about what to do in the case of a fatal condition, we had to leave the country like criminals, speak in euphemisms to hospital staff in Ireland, pay thousands to end a pregnancy, all the while my heart breaking at having to say goodbye to my darling baby girl.”

She continued to receive scans before leaving, hoping — against her own instincts — that the fetus would simply die inside of her. “It was the least bad option,” Mellet said. Instead, a doctor found a heartbeat and suggested “your child might not suffer” if the pregnancy progressed. “It was hurtful, because my whole thinking was that the only thing I could do for Aoife is make sure she doesn’t know distress,” Mellet said.

At the end of November, she and her husband flew to Liverpool, where the hospital gave her medication to begin terminating her pregnancy and then, two days later, medication to induce labor. Waiting in their drab hotel, the couple watched movies, including “Bridesmaids,” the 2011 comedy starring Kristen Wiig. “I was looking for something mindless to distract myself,” Mellet said. “It didn’t work.”

After 36 hours in labor, she was given one hour to say goodbye to her dead baby, clothed in a white dress and lying in a bassinet.

Twelve hours after delivery, Mellet stood in line at the airport, still bleeding and lightheaded, willing herself not to faint for fear she would be barred from flying. She sank into her seat as flight attendants hawked lottery scratch cards and revelers on their way to a bachelorette party screeched about Dublin nightlife.

Mellet and her husband were not permitted to take their baby’s remains with them. Aoife’s ashes were sent to Dublin two weeks later by courier.

Back at home, Mellet logged on to a digital forum for women who had traveled for abortions and said she wanted to “do something.” Three women with similar experiences came to her home, where they spoke for hours in her sunroom. That was the beginning of Termination for Medical Reasons, a support group and campaign organization that now includes upward of 50 women, as well as their partners, who lobby politicians, speak at events and canvass neighborhoods.

Amy Callahan crossed the Irish Sea last year after she had learned her baby would be born without a major portion of her brain, skull and scalp. “I could’t talk to anybody else who would tell me we could keep going and wait till the baby died,” said Callahan, a 35-year-old psychologist, explaining why she had turned to Mellet’s support group.

Mellet recalled one male member of Parliament telling her in a meeting that he was not comfortable discussing women’s issues. And after her fledgling group sent 160 letters to obstetricians and gynecologists, begging them to speak out in defense of termination for medical reasons, they received only six replies. 

But with the help of Irish gender equity and human rights groups, she connected with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which offered to bring her case to the United Nations. The center filed on behalf of three women. Mellet v. Ireland was the first to be decided. 

“I think Irish society got a reality check, you know?” Mellet said. She noted that before, “people would express sympathy, but behind closed doors. Now they know their career won’t be over if they support us publicly. So that kind of barrier, that silence — that has ended.”

Mellet is reluctant to take much credit for transforming social attitudes — and perhaps national law.

“Any of the women that I met could have taken a case, do you know?” she said. “It’s still happening.”

The number of Irish women seeking abortions overseas has declined in recent years, because of the online availability of abortion pills, said Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association. But more than 3,000 of them traveled to England and Wales to terminate pregnancies in 2016. 

If the eighth amendment is repealed, Mellet said, “I’ll feel happy that I’ve contributed to that change.”

But her mind is mostly elsewhere. May marks the first birthday of her daughter, Ella, born more than five years after her first pregnancy ended in heartbreak.

She anticipates one day telling Ella about what happened to their family. “I’ll tell her she has a sister,” Mellet said, her eyes filling with tears. “Yeah, I’ll definitely tell her.” 

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