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“It is a form of abuse against women”: TV scriptwriter and wife urge change in Ireland's abortion law

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The shock of discovering a pregnancy is not to be is traumatic enough, bringing with it an onslaught of emotion and often a prolonged period of both physical and mental recovery.

So it's almost unimaginable that in Ireland, women – on top of being told their unborn baby has a fatal condition – can be forced by law to continue the pregnancy or face jail.

Now writer and director Graham Linehan and his wife Helen have lent their support to Amnesty International's campaign to decriminalise abortion in Ireland by discussing their own painful experience.

The couple were expecting in 2004, but at around 11 weeks pregnant, found out at their first scan that the baby had acrania, a condition meaning the skull does not close over the brain and which has a 100% mortality rate. Though a baby with acrania could survive in the womb, it would live for only around an hour after birth, meaning termination of the pregnancy was the only option.

As they were living in England, the procedure went ahead, but had they been in Graham's home country of Ireland, Helen would have faced up to 14 years in prison for having the procedure, or been forced to continue with the pregnancy until its inevitable outcome.

This realisation prompted the couple to go public with their own case in an emotional video for the charity, highlighting how the laws there affect not only those wishing to end an unwanted pregnancy, but those who require the procedure after complications.

In the video, Helen recounts: “It was very traumatic, sitting in a waiting room with heavily pregnant women, knowing this little flutter in my tummy was not gonna survive [...] But I just praise the treatment and the support we were given by the hospital because in other places it's different.”

Graham, who's worked on Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd among others, added: “In Ireland, Helen would go to jail for going through with that operation [...] I'm very proud to call myself Irish, but I'm thoroughly ashamed of the abortion laws. And it's time that Ireland grew up about that.

“Irish politicians need to treat this as the emergency that it is.”

Later in the video, Helen discusses how she'd have had to carry the baby to term, going through body changes and labour, despite knowing the baby wouldn't have a chance of surviving, and may well have been in pain for the short time it lived.

Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “It would have been life-changing. To endure the full-term pregnancy, and to come home empty-handed and with the physical changes that come with pregnancy – it would have been awful. I don’t know how I would I have got through that, mentally or physically.”

She added: “It is a form of abuse against women. We need to have our own choices. If men had babies, the laws would be very different.”

The Republic of Ireland's abortion laws have long been controversial, giving the “life of the unborn” equal status as that of the mother. Abortion is illegal, even in cases where pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the baby will not survive, or the mother's health is at risk. The only exception is if the mother's life is at immediate risk (including risk of suicide).

But even with cases that fall within those limited caveats, some say the law is unworkable, citing cases in which women have been forced to give birth under court order. The death of Savita Halappanavar, who was refused an abortion when miscarrying in 2012, sparked debate and an official report found that confusion around the law contributed to the way the situation was handled.

For more details on Amnesty International's campaign to decriminalise abortion, visit their site here

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