An MLA fought back tears as he recalled the moment his baby daughter died as soon as she was born.
Cathal O hOisin said he was “horrified” by the lack of support for Northern Ireland parents forced to choose whether or not to end a pregnancy where there is a fatal foetal abnormality.
The Sinn Fein MLA said: “Our baby was born and died in the same minute, in the same second, in the same instance.
“We gave her a name, took her home and had a service.”
Mr O hOisin was addressing a conference on Northern Ireland’s abortion laws hosted by Amnesty International at the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) in Belfast.
The East Londonderry representative, who also has a 13-year-old son, said he was told after the 16-week scan that his daughter had anencephaly and would not survive after birth.
They were advised to go for a termination but opted to continue with the pregnancy, he revealed.
“From day one they said this is not survivable, this is not tenable, your baby will die or will be born dead or will die immediately at birth,” he said.
“It was an absolute life-changing moment.
“I am passionate about the issue of fatal foetal abnormality mainly because I have gone through it. I also have been advocating the rights of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy with a fatal foetal abnormality or indeed to continue with the pregnancy if she so wishes.”
Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act and every year more than 1,000 women travel to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.
Under the current law (1861 Offences Against the Person Act) it is a criminal offence for a woman to have an unlawful abortion, or for any other person to carry out an unlawful abortion – and punishment could be a lengthy prison sentence.
The veteran politician, who was speaking publicly about his loss for the first time, said he hoped to change attitudes on the contentious issue.
He said: “It was only when I looked into the options that we would have had, had we decided to go for a termination.
“I was absolutely horrified that had we decided such, first of all, it wouldn’t be available – and second of all, we would have to go across the water (to England).
“There’s a need for a change in the laws here. There is a need for a change in attitudes. There is a need for compassion. This is not just a women’s issue. It is a human issue.”
Justice Minister David Ford is currently consulting on changes to the criminal law on abortion – the first legislative change on abortion in more than a century.
Abortions are only permitted in Northern Ireland in certain circumstances including when the life of the mother is in grave danger.
However, members of the public have been asked for opinions on amending the law in cases of lethal foetal abnormality.
Amnesty International, which has published a new report on the issues, has branded the legislation outdated, draconian and in breach of the UK’s international human rights obligations.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaigner, said: “Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion law is the harshest in Europe.
“That grim distinction should be a wake-up call to politicians.
“The shameful lack of political action on this key issue has helped to create a climate of fear for medical professionals.
“Hundreds of women are forced to leave Northern Ireland every year just to access health care to which they should be entitled. That only adds to the trauma the women experience.
“Northern Ireland’s politicians have shirked their responsibilities to women’s health for too long. The Department of Health needs to fulfil its duties to women and girls in Northern Ireland by publishing proper guidance for its frontline staff, while the Assembly must act without further delay to reform abortion law.”
The Department of Justice has recommended that women be given the choice of terminating a pregnancy if two doctors agreed that the foetus had no prospect of life after delivery. This would enable a woman to decide at the point when such a judgment is made, usually at the 20-week scan.