This Is What It's Like to Have an Abortion in Europe
Two forms of contraception — a condom and birth control pills — failed to stop Louise from getting pregnant a few years ago in Northern Ireland’s city of Derry.
"I wasn’t willing to bring up a child that was unsupported by another parent," she said. "I was homeless at the time as well."
The laws in Northern Ireland meant she would have to travel if she wanted an abortion — but Louise, now 34, said she was too sick to fly.
"I was violently ill from week three," she explained. She decided to try getting the abortion pill through the mail. She filled out a consultation and then she waited.
“That two weeks was hell,” said Louise, now 34. When the packaged covered in international stamps arrived she took the first medicine immediately — “I just wanted the pregnancy to be over” — and checked into a hotel to wait for the cramping to start.
A few days later, she was still in pain and very weak. Louise was among the rare cases to experience complications and the bleeding didn't stop. An abortion-rights activist encouraged her to go to the doctor.
"I just told them I had miscarried — there’s no way for them to tell," she said. "I knew that something wasn’t right but I didn’t want to run the risk of being prosecuted."
She said the experience was "quite a physically traumatic thing" but that "I don't have any regrets."
Meredith Vass found out just weeks after arriving in London to study abroad that she was pregnant.
"I was super freaked out, obviously all alone, 20 years old," she said.
The American decided that she wanted an abortion but "didn't even know where to begin" in the foreign city.
"This was before there was much Googling going on," explained Vass, now 35.
Vass said she tried going to the clinic at the university where she was studying and "they were just terrible."
"I remember crying hysterically in the school's clinic next to this woman in the waiting room and her saying, 'Sorry, I can't help you.'"
It took "weeks" of calling numbers linked to the state-run National Health Service but Vass ultimately found found a free clinic where she could get the procedure performed.
"It was really not fun," she said. "It was awful."
Vass said she felt judged for getting an abortion but also for being an American.
"I was all alone and no one was friendly and I wasn't sure if it was the British way or what," she explained. "I remember leaving after the procedure and just hysterically crying on the stoop."
Gaye Edwards found out she was pregnant just after her first anniversary. She was so excited she "told everybody" and started looking at car seats and nursery schools.
"We were very carefree about it," she said. "Everything was going to plan."
She had a small bleed at 7 weeks but scans showed the baby's heartbeat was strong. Her pregnancy was uneventful after that until her 20-week scan showed anencephaly.
"I was completely struck dumb," Edwards said. "In my mind I was thinking there's something wrong with the head, so science can fix this, they can make a little fiberglass helmet, they can do this marvelous surgery."
She went on the Internet in search of "miracle cures" but after about a week decided to end the pregnancy. That meant traveling from the Irish Republic across the border to Northern Ireland's city of Belfast, where a doctor induced labor.
"Joshua was my first baby so I didn’t know what to expect with labor and delivery but at the end of it, it meant I got to meet my son," Edwards said. The hospital chaplain came to say a prayer.
She and her husband Gerry signed forms for Joshua to be cremated but eventually had to head for home.
"He was in a little Moses basket when I last saw him," Edwards said. "But there did come a point when we had to gather ourselves up and leave and really that was the hardest part of the whole thing."
The doorbell rang at her home one day not long after.
"It was just a little box … and had his name, his date of birth and the date of cremation on top."
Julie O'Donnell's scan at around 26 weeks "started off really well, they put the jelly on the belly" and then the stenographer "went really quiet."
"I just remember the atmosphere in the room completely changing and she just said I’m going to step out for a minute," O'Donnell said. "Me and my husband were looking at each other and obviously the nerves were just gone at that point."
Two other midwives and the head stenographer came in and rescanned O'Donnell, then told her that the baby had anencephaly.
"I remember walking out of the hospital in a big daze," she said. "Ironically we were going back to my Mom and Dad's to celebrate whether it was a girl or a boy. So we broke the news to our families and the rest of that night was just a blur."
O'Donnell was told that her baby had no chance of survival outside the womb. She decided she wanted an abortion, but the laws in her native Ireland meant that she'd need to travel to England to get one.
"I don't think I've ever felt so alone in my country," she recalled. "You felt like a bit of a criminal."
Her husband took the lead in finding a hospital. It took about 2 weeks to get an appointment in Liverpool, England.
The first procedure there was "the worst" — a scan and an injection to stop the baby's heartbeat — because after that came a daylong wait.
"We were just wandering around Liverpool … That was really hard," she said through tears. "We had to go out and eat in restaurants. People are drinking wine and laughing around you and you’re going, 'OK ... I’m going to go in and deliver my dead baby tomorrow.'"
The next morning she was brought in to be induced — it was "pretty much like regular contractions" and then O'Donnell delivered baby Aidan.
"He was lovely and the nurses dressed him and they put a little hat on him," she said. "He had his ten little fingers and ten little toes and we got to spend a few hours with him."
A midwife told her there would be a lot of deliveries that evening and that she might not want to be around people celebrating.
"I remember feeling like I can't believe they're telling me to go but I suppose it was inevitable that I was going to have to leave anyway," she said. "So we had a non-religious guy came up and blessed him. We said a little goodbye ... I didn't take any pictures which is something I kind of really regret."
The hospital phoned later to say Aidan would be cremated; O'Donnell didn't want him to be alone so flew back to Liverpool. Then she had to leave him again; his ashes were later shipped to a funeral home.
A.M., 35, has had three abortions — two in Spain and one in England.
When she first got pregnant, the Finnish native was living in Barcelona, Spain. She found a clinic in the equivalent of the Yellow Pages.
"I don't remember what it cost but it wasn't prohibitive," she told NBC News. "I cannot remember it having been a big deal at all."
She had to undergo a psychological evaluation but "none of it was very traumatizing." What did strike her as "really weird" was that the clinic offered both abortions and fertility consultations. And there was a chart with the cycle of the fetus on the wall.
"I remember thinking, 'oh man, that's not something you want to know or look at'" when you're having an abortion, she added.
When she found out she was pregnant a third time, she was living in England and very early along. That meant abortion pills were an option.
"It was relatively unpleasant" but not terrible, A.M. told NBC News. "Thank God I had the options."
Clare Fremont, now 59, said she never told her mother about her abortions.
"I thought she'd be devastated," Fremont told NBC News. "But I always wanted to be able to say I've had three and that people shouldn't be ashamed."
K. spent weeks desperately trying to get the money together to travel from her home in Northern Ireland to the English city of Liverpool for an abortion. An organization called the Abortion Support Network agreed to help cover the costs of the procedure and she booked her flights just after New Year's Eve in 2015.
"It just felt like this huge weight was lifted," she said.
A cab driver picked her up from her rural village just before dawn and K. headed for the airport alone for the first flight of the day. Her partner stayed home with their two young children.
"The taxi driver was so nice and he was asking me why I was going," K. recalled. "I was just making up reasons ... chatting away trying to pretend it wasn't happening."
At the airport she wondered whether airport staff would suspect her reasons for traveling. She couldn't eat or have coffee so K. said she waited "in silence, watching the clock."
There were "normal people" at the airport "just going for holidays," she recalled. A university sports team.
On the plane K. said she tried to "block everything out" — flipping through magazines until she landed and hailed a cab for the BPAS clinic.
"I thought the taxi driver would be judging me," she said. "He must've known."
The cab driver didn't say anything and brought her to the clinic, where K. said she was struck by how busy it was. There were people there for reproductive help but also people there, like her, for abortions in a separate waiting area.
"It didn't feel like a hospital," K. said. There were couches and plants, no sign of the "horrible hospital colors" like peach and green.
K. said she watched TV as she waited to be called to the intake desk, prepared to defend her reasons for wanting an abortion. But the nurse simply said: "Your family's complete, yeah?
"I felt like crying because she was just so wonderful and accepting," K. recalled.
The clinic did a scan to confirm how far along K. was and a blood test to see if she was anemic. Eventually K. was brought to a changing area where she put on the dark green T-shirt of her boyfriend's that she'd brought for the procedure. She was given a blanket to cover up and led to the surgical area.
"I think they could tell that I was nervous and they just told me to count back from 10," K. said. "That's all I remember … then I woke up in the recovery room."
K. said she has a strong memory from that moment: "Relief — that it was over."
After a short while she was allowed to get dressed and cleared for release. K. went straight for the airport, nearly five hours early. The extra time didn't bother her — K. said she was happy to wander the terminal.
"I hadn't eaten properly in weeks with all the worry, and I ordered a Subway," she said. "It was the nicest thing I'd ever eaten. I just felt free ... It was amazing."
She eventually boarded her flight back to Belfast. Her boyfriend's father picked her up but she didn't tell him the real reason she'd been gone.
K. hasn't told friends or most family what she went through — but feels strongly that her story should be told, even anonymously.
"I have no regrets. I know it was the right decision to make," K. said. "Every time I look at my two boys I feel completely vindicated in the decision that we made."