The ashes in Amanda Mellet’s bedroom are a private reminder of an experience at the center of a public debate over abortion in Ireland, outlawed even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and non-life-threatening risk to maternal health.
The wooden box 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.
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.
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 abortion rights 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.
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 and 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. And it called on Ireland to amend its laws criminalizing abortion, including its constitution, if necessary.
Mellet has been quietly sharing her experience for years: to other women forced to travel overseas to terminate their pregnancies, to politicians and to hospital directors. And recently, she began telling it 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.
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 says she and her husband, James Burke, were delighted 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.
• Ninty-five percent of babies with the chromosomal disorder die in utero.
• Of those born alive, most die within days or weeks after birth
• About 5-10 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.
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 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.”
At the end 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.
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.
Mellet and her husband weren’t 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.
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.
Mellet is reluctant to take much credit for transforming social attitudes — and perhaps national law.
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.