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Category Archives: The family

No country for young women: Honour crimes and infanticide in Ireland

magdalene

When I was in first year in secondary school in 1997, a girl in the year above me was pregnant. She was 14. The only people who I ever heard say anything negative about her were a group of older girls who wore their tiny feet “pro-life” pins on their uniforms with pride. They slagged her behind her back, and said she would be a bad mother. They positioned themselves as the morally superior ones who cared for the baby, but not the unmarried mother. They are the remnants of an Ireland, a quasi-clerical fascist state, that we’d like to believe is in the past, but still lingers on.

The news broke last week of a septic tank filled with the remains of 796 children and babies in Galway. The remains were accumulated from the years 1925 to 1961 and a common cause of death was malnutrition and preventable disease. The Bon Secours “Home” had housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their children down through the years. These women had violated the honour of their communities, by bringing shame on their families through “illegitimate” pregnancy and therefore had to be hidden at all costs, and punished for their transgressions. The children died as they lived, discarded like the refuse of society that the Church considered them and the mothers that gave birth to them to be. Most of the children who survived were put to work in industrial schools under the supervision of perverts and sadists.

Thousands of the healthy ones were sold abroad – mostly to the US –  for “adoption.” For the ones who remained, the outlook was poor. Mortality rates of 50% or 60% were common in these homes.  In the case of  the ones that died, either the Church did not feel they were valuable enough to feed and care for, or they actively worked towards their death. The risk they posed to the social order by virtue of the circumstances of their conception and birth was too great to let go unchecked. These children certainly did not die for lack of money or resources on the Church’s part (they had an income from the children they sold), and the fewer children of this kind there were, the less threat there was to the church’s control over society.

If the Church had allowed them to grow up to be functioning adults in Irish society it would have ran the risk of demonstrating that the institution of marriage was not absolutely integral to the moral well-being of a person. Women were not allowed keep their babies because the shame that their existence brought upon the community would be far too great. They were imprisoned within Magdalene Laundries to atone for their sins of honour, and their babies were removed from them as part of their punishment – women who dishonoured the community were deemed to unfit to parent.

Contemporary Ireland feigned shock when stories of the Laundries and residential institutions emerged. Perhaps the shock of those who were too young to be threatened with being put in one for “acting up” was genuine, because the institutions started to close as the years went on. But people in their fifties and sixties now, will remember how the “Home Babies” sometimes came to schools, and were isolated by other (legitimate) children, and then sometimes never came back. While those school-children may not have comprehended fully the extent of what happened, their parents and teachers, and the community of adults surrounding them knew.

Ireland as a whole was complicit in the deaths of these children, and in the honour crimes against the women. They were the “illegitimate babies” born to the “fallen women” who literally disappeared from villages and towns across Ireland in to Magdalene Laundries. Everybody knew, but nobody said, “Honour must be restored. We must keep the family’s good name.”

The women themselves served a dual purpose in the Laundries. They were a warning to others what happened when you violated the rule of the Church, and they were financial assets engaged in hard labour on behalf of the Church. They were not waged workers; they did not receive payment. They could not leave of their own free will, and their families, for the most part, did not come for them; the shame on the family would be too great. Ireland had a structure it used to imprison women for being sexual beings, for being rape victims, for not being the pure idolised incubator for patriarchy, for not having enough feminine integrity, or for being simply too pretty for the local priest’s liking. Ireland has a long tradition of pathologising difference.

People did know what went on in those institutions. Their threat loomed large over the women of Ireland for decades. On rare occasions when people attempted to speak out, they were silenced, because the restoration of honour requires the complicity of the community. Fear of what other people will think of the family is embedded in Irish culture.

The concept of honour means different things in different cultures but a common thread is that it can be broken but restored through punishing those who break it. We are familiar with the hegemonic concepts of “honour killing” and “honour crimes” as a named form of violence against women in cultures other than ours. The papers tell us it is not something that people do in the West. Honour killings, and honour crimes are perpetually drawn along racialised lines and Irish and UK media happily present them within the context of a myth of moral superiority.

Honour crimes are acts of domestic violence, acts of punishment, by other individuals – sometimes family, sometimes authorities – for either real or perceived transgressions against the community code of honour. However, it is only when there is a woman wearing a hijaab or a the woman is a person of colour, or ethnicised, that “honour” is actually named as a motivation for the act of violence.  It is a term that has been exoticised, but it is not the act itself or the location it occurs, but the motivation behind it that is important in defining it.

Women of colour, and Muslim women, are constructed as the “other;” we are told these women are given in marriage at a young age by controlling fathers who pass on the responsibility for controlling them to husbands. “Protection” of women is maintained through a rigid sytem of controlling their sexuality in a framework of honour and shame. When these women transgress the boundaries of acceptable femininity they are abused and shunned by their community. Punishments range from lashing to death, but include physical beatings, kidnappings and imprisonment.

Imprisoning women in the Magdalene Laundries deserves to be named as an honour crime because of a cultural obsession that believed the family’s good name rested upon a woman’s (perceived) sexual activity that either her father or husband or oldest brother was the caretaker of. Her sentence to the Laundry was to restore the family honour.

Recently a friend of mine tweeted when the verdict was returned in the murder trial of Robert Corbet. Corbet was convicted of murdering Aoife Phelan, a woman from Laois he had been seeing, who told him she was pregnant. He hit her, then strangled her, then fearing that she was not actually dead, he put a black bag over her head and fixed it with two cable ties and buried her in a barrel on the family homestead. The next day he got on a plane to New York to meet his ex-girlfriend to attempt to repair their relationship. My friend had outlined the case and on twitter referred to Robert Corbet attempting to have a “dirty weekend away” in New York.

Following this, my friend received unsolicited mail to her facebook account, from a person claiming to be the cousin of Robert Corbet’s ex-girlfriend saying: “….how dare you say a dirty weekend in new york and speak about my cousin who is his ex girlfriend like that . you don’t know what happened when he went over or why he went over you don’t know my cousin so how dare you say that it was a dirty weekend away.”

The point of mentioning this is certainly not to make anything of Corbet’s ex’s character or actions, but his intentions after he killed a woman, as well as the the mentality of the person who sent this mail. That message is a symptom of rural Ireland’s chronic obsession with shame and the keeping of a person’s “good name” at all costs; a stranger made a post on the internet about a man’s probable intentions after murdering a woman, and someone else’s immediate reaction is not to read what she said concerning the murder of a woman, but to attest to the moral purity of her cousin. There is something very wrong with that.

There was something wrong in Listowel when a parish priest gave a character reference for Danny Foley, a man convicted of sexual assault, whose victim was refused service afterwards in bars and shops. When the verdict was returned, fifty people (mostly middle-aged men) formed a queue in the courthouse to shake the hand of Danny Foley. Journalists happily took quotes from locals saying what a shame it was, as this wasn’t his character; he was a good man, from a good family. The victim did not matter. The priest said of her, “Well she has a child you know, and that doesn’t look good.” John B. Keane wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

We have not come so far from the Magdalene Laundries. Robert Corbet initially lied to the guards about where he had buried Aoife Phelan because he “wanted to protect the family home place.” The need to keep the family name intact is embedded in Ireland so much, that there are even other women happy to be complicit with, and benefit from patriarchy. They are the girls in my school who wore their “pro-life” feet pins (one of them is now a doctor I am told). They are the women who shook Danny Foley’s hand. They are the women who condemn other women for doing things that would have landed them in a Magdalene Laundry a few decades earlier. Let nobody question their honour.

Irish culture has had a traditional focus on eradicating troublesome women and their offspring. For years unmarried pregnant women were punished and hidden away in homes. Women who need abortions travel in silence to have them in secret in England, or they have secret home abortions here. Government ministers actively engage in policies that make it more difficult to be a single mother, and to speak out against it is deemed immoral and not of value to the community. A person sending unsolicited emails to a person concerning a third party’s moral purity, and then publicly tweeting in relation to it demonstrates her own value to the community by positioning the importance of women’s role in public morality above that of the murder of an individual woman – a woman who was buried in a barrel to protect the family home.

We are told to be silent and not talk about things. Difference, and naming difference in Ireland is pathologised. Even those who are meant to be the good guys are not exempt from the cultural effect of this. Women when they are abused in activism or online are told not to retaliate. We are called “toxic and hostile” for having the audacity to name misogynist abuse where we see it.  We get death threats for speaking out about abortion. But we are told to “be kind” at all costs. When people abuse victims of domestic violence online, we are told to leave their abusers alone. Women must never appear to be angry. We must be nice to those who abuse us. We must be always nice no matter the cost to us; we must not bring shame upon the community.

This is not so far away from the mentality that locked women up in homes and threw children in septic tanks to be forgotten. It absolutely depended on complicity of wider society. It could not have existed without the collaboration of the whole community; the teachers; the priests; the nuns; the people that ran the undertakers; the local councillors; the people who brought the laundry to the nuns; perhaps your grandmother who cuddled you to sleep at night.

We are told it was a different time, and things are different now.

Youth Defence still sell their pins online. Joan Burton continues her crusade to paint single mothers as lazy and worthless. National newspapers will freely print opinion pieces denigrating them. 796 dead children will get a memorial but no one will be held to account for their deaths. Those who ask for it will be told to be kind. The religious orders who put them in a septic tank will continue unquestioned. Those who put the women in Magdalene Laundries will continue to work for “fallen women”. Women will be denied control over their own bodies. They will die for the want of medical care.

It must be so. To do otherwise, would bring shame on the family. But when we look the other way, and allow the lie that we live in a modern progressive democracy to breathe, we allow our authoritarian Catholic past to continue to cast its shadow.

The Moral Outrage of the Damned: Public reaction to the plight of Sabrina McMahon

Sabrina McMahon is 36 years old. She has three children, ages 5, 3, and 1. She and her three children currently live in her car. Sabrina has lived in her car for the past week after her “temporary” arrangements, which lasted a year, broke down. She formerly worked as a dental nurse and as a carer. She keeps her buggy, nappies and possessions in the boot of her car and her groceries in the front. She avails of the kindness of friends so she can wash and clean her clothes. Her children sleep in the back. When the baby wakes for a bottle she switches on the engine to keep her warm. A Sinn Féin Councillor Maire Devine, has been making representations to South Dublin County Council on her behalf for the past year while she went from relative to relative over the months since her relationship broke down. When SDCC were contacted by the Irish Times for comment, they said they were “aware” of the case but didn’t wish to say anything further which was unsurprising.

Unless they were going to say, “We are deeply ashamed that we have failed to show basic human decency to this woman and her family and find her a home” they were probably better off to say nothing. No landlord will accept rent allowance from her. She presented at the Dublin Central Placement Service and was told to go back to Kildare, where she had previously lived, but she wants to live near her family.

If was I was living in a car with three small children I would want to live near my family too.

Her story was on the front page of the Irish Times and it covered on all the major radio stations. On Newstalk this morning, texts flooded in saying that Sabrina was a bad mother; that she should have her children taken from her; that she shouldn’t have even had her children in the first place; that she was irresponsible and only “using” the media to get a free ride on the back of taxpayers. Social media users had a field day in condemning the parenting skills of a woman who is literally living on the margins of society. Very little was said about her former partner. However, the level of misogyny and hatred directed at her in those texts and comments was a slightly more ignorant representation of the structural misogyny directed at her from the state. The state shows its disdain for women like Sabrina by failing to provide for her needs. The tweets condemning her are this simply this same attitude refined to 140 characters.

There are 98,000 families waiting for social housing in this state and the comments levelled at Sabrina McMahon are not unusual. In fact, Sabrina’s situation is not unusual. People are fooling themselves if they think that Sabrina McMahon is the only person in Ireland living in her car right now. And the comments about her are the same type of comments made about poor and homeless women who become pregnant and have families because they generally pathologised as people who made bad decisions, lack male authority, and exist without morals or values. They are believed to be selfish and parasitic and rearing children in their own rough image. It is the stock depiction of the very poorest working class women.

While Sabrina has some bread rolls in the front seat of her car, her problem is that she isn’t a consumer. She just wants somewhere to live that’s safe. It’s one of the most basic things a person can ask for. She isn’t economically productive, and therefore doesn’t warrant the concern of the state. She is a mother and a carer so not considered to be engaging in “real work.”

Women do the lion‘s share of unpaid household and care work. But it isn’t considered “work” because there are no wages, it’s just what women do. It is a bizarre attitude from a state that has a Constitution that specifically assigns a woman’s role to the home. But the very structure of capitalism, depends on women doing the majority of this form of work without payment.  Neoliberal capitalism neglects to acknowledge that women working within the home (or from their car in the absence of having a home) are economically productive as it allows the State to not provide public childcare infrastructure or other supports for childrearing. It is just something that women are expected to do, but it isn’t good enough for the terms of capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately Sabrina lives in a place where the government department responsible for welfare, the Department of Social Protection, aim to restructure the lives of poor women like Sabrina, in both a physical and a moral sense. It was not by mistake that it was the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald was out commenting on this story today, to address the concerned masses’ cries of “won’t somebody please think of the children?” rather than the Minister for Social Protection or the Minister for Environment, who ultimately have the responsibility for Sabrina’s situation.

It is unlikely that those who had the luxury of sending a message from their smartphone to a radio station to condemn and blame Sabrina for her situation, stopped to contemplate the precarity of their own situations; how many of them are only two, three or four pay packets away from homelessness themselves.

Not only was Sabrina demonised as a bad parent – but through their commentary, the very value of her existence was questioned. Caring for three small children in the back of a car isn’t valued because it is unpaid labour, although it is probably fair to say that if those who condemned Sabrina were forced to do it, they would think it was pretty hard work indeed.

SPARK ran a campaign last year against a programme forcing lone mams to work when their children turned 7, which had been introduced by Minister Joan Burton. You couldn’t have people remaining economically unproductive now could you? The rationale is that the state cannot allow people to exist in a way that does not overtly benefit capitalism. The point of that programme was to redeem the women who do not have male authority in their lives by forcing them into a situation where they would live within a patriarchal system that would give them male authority in the form of employment. The likelihood is, if they even managed to get a job, their boss would be a man. It is the state’s antidote to these dreadful welfare recipients of getting something for nothing. This particular form of workfare is branded an “activation measure” but it is punitive. It punishes women for not conforming to a life that involves a man who is a breadwinner.

Women don’t become poor in a vacuum. Women like Sabrina don’t live in cars for the fun of it and as austerity continues to destroy Irish society, we will continue to see more Sabrinas living in more cars and cardboard boxes, and sadly, more people willing to condemn them for it.

Why childbirth should be on the feminist agenda in Ireland

Guest post by Sylda Dwyer

The day before Mother’s Day in an emergency Saturday sitting, a High Court judge was asked to compel a pregnant woman to undergo a Caesarean section. According to an affidavit presented in court, Waterford Regional Hospital believed that because the woman was 13 days overdue by their calculations, had a scar on her uterus from a previous C-section and the position of the baby’s head was high, a Caesarean was required. As the woman was refusing to consent to the procedure, the hospital sought an order to enforce the C-section immediately.

The judge heard evidence from the locum consultant obstetrician attending the woman and one other consultant obstetrician from the same hospital who gave his evidence over the phone. No independent or third party opinions were heard. The woman was represented in court by a solicitor paid for by the hospital. Her voice – undisputedly the most important in this potentially precedent-setting case – was absent. We do not know her reasoning for refusing the section except that it was not on religious grounds as the judge sought clarification on this.

We do know the following:

- she believed the hospital had miscalculated her due date and was in fact due on 18 March

- her husband was overseas and therefore unable to support her

- she has a son who was born in 2010 by Caesarean section

- she wanted to deliver this baby naturally

- she was prepared to undergo a C-section if an emergency arose or if the surgery took place on the Sunday or Monday when her husband would be back in the country.

Just minutes before the judge was due to make his ruling, word arrived from the hospital that the woman had consented and that a spinal anaesthetic had been administered. It is unlikely that we will ever know how the judge would have ruled. Either decision would have been a significant landmark in human rights in childbirth in Ireland.

A ruling in favour of the enforced C-section could have potentially opened up the floodgates to medical professionals turning to the courts when coming up against resistance from women who disagreed with hospital policies such as induction and active labour management. Such a ruling would essentially take the decision making power of a pregnant woman out of her hands and in the process remove her right to body autonomy in contravention of her human rights, a situation not unfamiliar to Irish women.

A ruling in favour of the mother would have been a boost to the recognition of a woman’s right to bodily integrity and to make informed decisions about her healthcare during pregnancy, something that is sorely needed in Ireland at the moment.

Either way, this emergency sitting had huge implications for maternity care and women’s human rights in this country.

It is also worth noting that the absence of a ruling meant that no woman in this country has yet been subjected to a court-enforced Caesarean birth against her will and this is cause for celebration. Although it is a dark day for pregnant women’s rights that the situation arose at all, we should be thankful that the horrors that might unfold in a forced C-section have not been realised. One can only imagination the long term negative implications such a birth would have on the baby and its traumatised mother.

So what happened next?

Outside of a couple of articles from the Irish Times, who initially broke the story on Saturday, an excellent opinion piece from Victoria White in the Examiner and some cursory pieces in a smattering of online and print outlets, the media has been deafeningly silent on this case. Apart from reporting the facts that presented themselves in court, no analysis or questioning of the case has been published. No one has asked why an independent expert opinion wasn’t sought, no one has asked why the woman was insistent on refusing consent, no one has queried the fact that one of the consultants claimed that Caesarean sections are “almost risk free”. It would appear that we’re all relieved that this messy business has been neatly swept under the carpet.

There has been no public outcry or a rallying of the troops to support this woman who played such a strong hand to defend her bodily integrity and human rights when most would have conceded to the pressures. In fact, rather than the sound of supporting voices, the loudest noise has been the feverish tapping on keyboards and smartphones as boards, forums and social media have lit up with other women condemning this new mother for daring to question her medical advice, calling her a reckless, selfish, stupid, dangerous, incense-burning hippy who deserves to have her child taken from her.

Rather than an outpouring of sympathy for a woman who felt she knew her own body and her baby best, many believe that the medical opinion was sacrosanct and beyond reproach and therefore the court should have ruled that she be subject to a forced Caesarean. By all accounts, the majority of the female online community have judged that the pregnant woman was fully entitled to bodily integrity and to make decisions about her body and her baby, just as long as they were the “correct’ decisions as deemed by her doctor.

Is seems that as a nation we are happy to accept that there is only one truth to birth and that is the medical system’s truth. Rather than question the policy practices of the Irish maternity system, which prioritises managing as many women through the system as it can, as fast as it can, over the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies, we are happy to accept routine interventions which often directly lead to complications and traumatic birth experiences with long term health consequences, both physical and psychological.

We have a birth culture in Ireland where women accept that their birth process can be decided on by a medical practitioner. Hospitals dictate when a woman’s labour starts, how is starts, and whether its going fast enough according to a one-size-fits-all policy. Inductions convenient to hospital diaries, but not to a woman whose body simply isn’t quite ready to give birth yet, often fail leading to Caesarean sections that could have been completely avoided if the woman had been given a few extra days for her body to be ready to give birth.

Women already in labour who are deemed not to be progressing sufficiently fast enough to hospital policy, although their body is going at a pace that is working for both mother and baby, have their labour speeded up which can lead to both maternal and foetal distress. Episiotomies, surgically planned incisions of the perineum, are often performed without seeking a woman’s consent and in some cases in spite of her refusal. There is a time and a place for all of these interventions where they are positive and useful tools in successful birth outcomes. The issue is that they have become standard practice without medical indication.

In recent years a whole industry has developed around dealing with the fall out of women’s – and babies – negative birth experiences. Traumatic birth counsellors with expertise in post natal depression and post traumatic stress disorder, cranio-sacral osteopaths, women’s health physiotherapists and perineal specialists are part of mainstream healthcare. These practitioners provide a necessary and important service but surely there are questions to be asked about why so many women and their babies will require these services in the first instance?

Why is it that when the vast majority of pregnancies in Ireland are considered low risk, do we have such a high incidence of intervention and medicalised birth? Why do we accept that giving birth is something horrific that has to be endured as long as we end up with a healthy mother and baby? Who decides what the definition of healthy is? It would appear that we set that standard as simply still being alive, and to hell with the immediate and long term consequences of trauma caused by a medical interventionalist model. It is a low bar.

We unquestionably go along with hospital policies that are put in place to manage the number of women passing through maternity hospital doors and to protect medical professionals against litigation rather than for the best interest of mothers and babies. Rather than allowing labours to begin spontaneously and to progress at a natural pace for the comfort and safety of both mother and baby, hospitals hold full control over the birth process. This model of maternity care is the only example in the healthcare sector of maintaining such control. In any other medical situation, the patient has full control in the decision making process and can walk away without consequence if they don’t consent to medical recommendations. In this same context, it’s worth noting that pregnancy is not an illness, rather a natural physiological process, until medical complications arise.

Given that there are so many births in Ireland every year and child bearing is experienced by so many women, why is childbirth completely ignored by the feminist movement? . We rally to defend the rights of women in early pregnancy to choose how they want their pregnancy to proceed, as we should. Yet there is something about the birth process itself that we have marginalised and dismissed.

When uninterrupted, pregnancy and birth can be a life-affirming, empowering, peaceful and private experience that can result in positive outcomes for both mother and child, including in the post-partum bonding and healing process. So why do we allow it to be taken from us and controlled? The current system of maternity care, while populated with many excellent medical professionals, has administration, logistics and litigation management as its focus rather than mother-led care. Until freedom of choice in childbirth is put front and centre as a priority of the feminist movement in Ireland, alongside pro-choice and equality policies, cases like this High Court sitting will become de rigour and women’s rights in childbirth will continue to be eroded.

Related articles:

Woman agrees to Caesarean after hospital goes to court – Irish Times

Sadly, Ireland doesn’t know best in Ireland’s rigid childbirth regime – Victoria White, Irish Examiner

Caesarean Section Refusal in Ireland – Human Rights in Ireland

No country for pregnant women – AIMS Ireland

Giving birth is a feminist issue – Mind the Baby

Irish hospital prepared to forcibly perform C-section on non consenting woman – Allergic to Patriarchy

NHS NICE Caesarean Guidelines

Sylda Dwyer blogs at http://www.mindthebaby.ie

Children’s rights must not mean women’s wrongs

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Last month the Irish Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that the long-promised referendum on the rights of children would finally be held this year.

The background to this lies in the following provisions of the Irish Constitution:

Article 41
1. 1° The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
2° The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

3. 1° The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.

Article 42
1. The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

5. In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.

The proposed referendum, as agreed by an all-party parliamentary committee, would leave Article 41 intact but remove those two subsections of Article 42. The replacement text is rather lengthy so I’ll just provide a link rather than post it all here.

The impetus for this change comes from a series of judicial and policy decisions, which have been seen as making it so difficult to interfere with the sacred institution of The Family (and more particularly the marital family) as to effectively tie the State’s hands when it comes to child protection and welfare. A few examples:

  • The 2001 case Northwestern Health Board v HW, where the Supreme Court upheld the right of parents to refuse to allow their child undergo the PKU test, a totally safe procedure to detect a disorder that leads to brain damage if untreated.
  • An unspeakably horrible case of familial abuse in County Roscommon, revealed a little over a year ago. You can Google it yourself, I don’t have the stomach for it. The mother had obtained an injunction preventing the children being removed from the family home; her affidavit cited the rights that she and her husband, as a married couple, had over their children. Social workers on the case confirmed that Article 42 had a sort of chilling effect on their efforts to protect the children, as it led them to believe they would need to prove a nearly impossible threshold of neglect.
  • The 2006 “Baby Ann” case (N v Health Service Executive), in which a two-year-old girl was ordered returned to her birth parents. They had consented to her adoption, but changed their minds and subsequently married – at which point, according to Justice McGuinness, the rights of the family took over from the best interests of the child as the “central issue”. (Actually, on the peculiar facts of this case the birth parents would have had a decent argument even without the constitutional imperative, but there are obvious reasons to be concerned about the court’s emphasis on the primacy of the marital family.)

So you can see why there’s widespread support for amending the Constitution to specifically enshrine the rights of children. What little opposition there is is mainly coming from two of the most repellent groups in Irish society: the xenophobes, who fear the amendment being used to prevent deportation of Africans with minor children; and the uber-Catholics for whom any interference with the marital family is anathema. (It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the list of amendment opponents reads like a Who’s Who of the Irish anti-abortion movement – whose concern for the rights of children clearly ends at birth.) Ironically, although the latter group is far more organised and politically powerful than the former, it is the deportation issue that is actually holding the referendum up. I was present at a private meeting a couple years ago where a then-Cabinet Minister, a current Cabinet Minister and a backbench member of the other current government party all agreed that the wording would have to be changed to assuage those fears.

Irish feminism, on the other hand, seems to be pretty much entirely behdind the amendment, and that’s fairly understandable. After all, the primacy of the marital (read: patriarchal nuclear) family hasn’t exactly done us many favours; and while the amendment won’t remove Article 41.1, it clearly will narrow its scope. But while I wouldn’t argue that we should vote “no”, I do think some important issues have been overlooked in the debate. Consider the following:

  • In 2006, the High Court ordered that a Jehovah’s Witness be given a blood transfusion (subscription required) contrary to her express wishes, the first time this was done to a competent adult. Counsel argued and the Judge accepted that her child’s need for a parent overrode her right to refuse medical treatment.
  • In the US, women have lost custody of their children for working outside the home, being lesbians and even reporting domestic abuse.
  • According to a representative of the fabulous Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services Ireland who I was speaking to recently, some Irish women have been threatened with prosecution – yes, prosecution – if they insisted on giving birth at home rather than under the full control of the professional (and strongly male-dominated, and extremely paternalistic) medical industry.

What these cases all have in common is that they’re examples of the “best interests of the child” being used to further a patriarchal agenda, in which motherhood automatically strips women of their autonomy. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t just the standard assumption of self-sacrifice that having children always entails; it’s the quite deliberate channeling of women with children – whose primary identity is now “mother” – into tightly prescribed roles, with the legal system there to act as enforcer.

I’m being a bit deliberately melodramatic here and I’m not suggesting that passage of this amendment will actually turn us all into Stepford wives. But I don’t think we should be complacent about the risk of “children’s rights” becoming another tool of state misogyny. Let’s not forget that this is a state where woman’s primary role as housewife and mother is actually enshrined in the Constitution (Article 41.2, for readers abroad). Do you trust all of our judges to read the new amendment in a way that protects children’s rights without trampling on women’s? I don’t.

I’m also uneasy about the way this amendment could be read in juxtaposition with Article 40.3.3, on the right to life of the “unborn”. Judging by some of the cases coming out of the US at the moment, it seems that pregnant women in some states might be only a few years away from being forcibly institutionalised to prevent them doing anything that might possibly lead to the birth of a less-than-perfectly-healthy baby, such as having the odd glass of wine or eating too much junk food. It’s a strange sort of logic that allows women to be penalised for “neglecting” foetuses that they have every right (at least on paper) to abort, which I suspect is why those laws aren’t more widespread throughout the US than they are. Here, of course, the constitutional position on abortion is no impediment to such laws – and with a mandate to protect both the rights of (actual) children and the rights of the “unborn”, there is, I think, a worrying possibility that this American trend could catch on here.

Again, and just to be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that feminists should oppose the amendment. In all likelihood I will vote for it myself, on a simple cost-benefit analysis (as in, I think overall it will probably do more good than harm). And I don’t have any suggestions as to how it could be worded to avoid these nightmare outcomes, especially while the odious Articles 40.3.3 and 41.1-2 remain. But we shouldn’t be leaving it to the racists and religious fanatics to highlight its possible unintended consequences. We should be putting the State on notice that although we want to see better protection for Irish children, we are not going to tolerate it becoming yet another tool to oppress Irish women.

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