I met Aisling in her office in Dublin. "Keep your voice down," she said, closing her office door and sitting behind her desk. The walls were thin, and she didn't want her colleagues to overhear us talking about her abortion.
Aisling had short hair, wore a hand-knit cardigan, and looked a decade younger than her 45 years. She spoke in measured tones, telling me how she had wanted kids, and how she had become pregnant late in life.
Then she learned her fetus had a genetic condition, and wouldn't likely survive past birth.
No one should have to go through what she went through, Aisling said. She wanted Ireland's abortion laws - and the cultural stigma surrounding abortion - to change. She wasn't willing to risk judgment by speaking openly. But she wanted me to know.
"I didn't know what to do," Aisling said. "I was distraught. One consultant was very nice, but his view was just to let things happen. He said, ‘You'll have a late miscarriage anyway.' "
I'd already been in Ireland for a few days, working on a report on Ireland's restrictive abortion laws, when I met Aisling. Abortion in Ireland is illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. It's only legal when a pregnant woman's life is in danger, and even then, women are forced to travel abroad for the procedure.
But the laws haven't stopped women from needing abortions - it just makes them more difficult and stressful to get. Since 1980, hundreds of thousands of women have traveled to the United Kingdom from Ireland to end their pregnancies. Many women have traveled to other European countries for the same reason. And they do so at great emotional and financial cost, and to the detriment of their health.
After learning her baby's condition, Aisling, distraught, spent the next few weeks seeking information on her options. The hospitals stonewalled her.
But she knew what she wanted to do. She found a clinic in England and booked flights for her husband and herself. She felt she couldn't tell her father or brothers. She told her husband's family, though, and they understood.
Aisling and I talked for more than an hour. I mostly kept my eyes in my notes, trying to give her a sense of space. She looked out the window. Her voice stayed steady as she shared her feelings of isolation, how hard it was to leave the country to have the procedure done, and how she felt like a criminal. She spoke of the other women in the clinic waiting room, and how she believed that each of them was going through something similar emotionally, even if they didn't have a fetal abnormality pregnancy.
After the procedure, she named the fetus Matthew and had the remains cremated. But bringing his ashes back to Ireland meant more legal hassle and personal strain.
Tears came to my eyes as I listened to Aisling. I have a child, and we wanted her very much. It's not easy to be pregnant -- things happen to your body, and it's a very emotional time. When I listened to Aisling speak about this incredible logistical nightmare, behind her measured tones I felt I could hear her tears, too.
In Ireland, Aisling's story is a worst-case-scenario. But every crisis pregnancy is hard. No one gets pregnant because they want an abortion, and women have many reasons for not wanting to become mothers. Around the world, women have abortions, legal or not - even if it means butchering themselves. But in Ireland, since women can fly to nearby countries where the procedure is safe and legal, the government gets away with sticking its head in the sand.
Not only does the Irish government restrict access to abortion, it also strictly regulates distribution of accurate information regarding abortion, while at the same time allowing false or misleading information to spread unchecked.
Clinics in Ireland are forbidden from giving information about abortion over the phone or the internet. So women living in rural areas, or those who can't access general information online, have to make an appointment and travel to a clinic in the city to receive any information.
Many women end up at rogue clinics - places posing as legitimate family planning sites that are, in fact, run by anti-abortion advocates.
Claire A., 29, contacted a clinic named "British Alternatives." When she got there, someone put a small model of a fetus in her hands, asked her to name it, and asked her how she'd feel if she killed her baby. Jane H. was told her family would reject her if she had an abortion. Claire C. was told she'd most certainly need a hysterectomy if she had an abortion and that she might also develop breast cancer, cervical cancer, and end up infertile.
But even clinics that provide accurate information are forbidden from setting up appointments abroad or finding hotels for women, all logistical hurdles that can seem insurmountable to someone who is already in distress. And travel is expensive. Every single woman interviewed for this report said that travel-related costs were their biggest concern once they decided to have an abortion.
These policies are toughest for women with low incomes and migrants -- particularly asylum seekers - who often have no Internet access, little money, and for whom traveling would be an issue.
For me, one of the most striking aspects of researching this report was the complete and utter ostrich mentality of the Irish government. Officials refuse to deal with the abortion topic. They make no attempt to count the number of women having legal or illegal abortions in Ireland, and it's the first country I've ever worked in - including Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Nicaragua - where abortion isn't considered a public health problem. The likely reason: women travel and get safe abortions rather than die in back alleys.
The government's policy maintains an environment of stigma - or at least perceived stigma. No pro-choice doctors or women who had abortions would allow us to use their names in our report for fear of retribution. That said, while every women we contacted who had an abortion was initially afraid to tell her family and friends, those who did share their experience generally found a lot of support. In other words, the perceived stigma is stronger than the actual stigma. This, I feel, is a reflection of a significant gap between the government's position and the people's opinion.
"We're implementing the views of the Irish people," the government says. But surveys indicate that the Irish public overwhelmingly supports making abortions available in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities, and danger to the pregnant woman's health.
With this report, we want to open up space to have this discussion. So far, government officials refuse to meet with us, although we did speak with some senators. News of our report made the front page of Ireland's top newspapers, and we reached listeners through radio interviews. We also met with the Irish Human Rights Commission, the national body responsible for promoting human rights compliance in Ireland. We're currently drawing up future advocacy plans.
Aisling's story has a happy ending. Just over a year ago, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I want Ireland's women to have the opportunity to decide when to become mothers. I want them to have their own happy endings.