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Category Archives: Reproduction

How to talk to your children about abortion

How to talk to your children about abortion

This is a slightly reworked repost of a piece I wrote for Parents for Choice in the run up to the referendum on abortion rights in Ireland. 

 

I have two daughters, who are 6 and 3. My six year old has been really interested in pregnancy, and pregnant women and bumps specifically, since she was three or four, and my three year old’s interest in pregnancy has started following suit in the last year. I think it’s really important when talking to children to try and reflect your own view of the world as honestly as possible in the words you use to them. My own view of pregnancy, particularly in the early stages, is that the developing pregnancy is something with the potential to grow into a baby, but not the ethical and moral equivalent of one. Because of this I’ve always made a deliberate effort to talk about a pregnancy as a “baby seed” rather than a baby. I don’t tell her people have “a baby in their tummy”, we talk about people having baby seeds that are growing into babies. When they’ve finished growing into a baby they’re ready to be born.

 

I use these terms because I don’t want to have to explain to a child  who’s asking questions about abortion that actually a 7 week embryo or whatever isn’t actually “a baby in someone’s tummy” as I’ve been telling her all along, and so that it won’t strike her as something as immediately shocking as I think it otherwise might. We’ve looked together at diagrams and drawings of embryo and foetal development and talked about how they’re not ready to be babies just yet, that they are growing into babies.

 

I also talk to my six year old about how growing a baby seed into a baby is a really hard and difficult and sometimes dangerous thing for a body to do, so I think everyone should get to decide for themselves whether they do or not. And I tell her some people think everyone should have to grow baby seeds into babies whether they want to or are able to or not. It helps that she remembers my pregnancy on her younger sister, in which I nearly died and had to inject myself with heparin for the remainder of the pregnancy, so we talk about that too.

 

She pointed out one of the “baby” posters during the referendum campaign when we were in the car and passed one. I said “Actually that’s a baby seed but the people who paid a lot of money for those posters made it look like a baby on purpose, because they think everyone who has a baby seed should have to grow it into a baby whether they wanted to or not.” And that I think that’s telling lies and shouldn’t be allowed.

 

I was pregnant with her when Savita died, in 2012, and in 2017 I took her to one of the vigils in memory of her for the first time since she was old enough to ask questions. I actually found hers engagement with the vigil and its cause really poignant; I explained to her in the car on the way in that we were going to a vigil to remember a woman who died called Savita Halappanavar (she said her name very carefully) who died before it was her time to die, because she was growing a baby seed and sometimes growing a baby seed can make us very sick because it’s an awful lot of work for our bodies. So sometimes people don’t want to grow baby seeds and sometimes people are too sick to grow baby seeds. And that I think doctors should be allowed to help people who don’t want to, to stop baby seeds from growing, but here they aren’t allowed to. And because they weren’t allowed to stop Savita’s baby seed from growing, even though her body wasn’t able to grow it, she died.

Our bodies, our babies, our births

Our bodies, our babies, our births

Before I write the rest of this piece I feel the need to lay out my mothering and birth ‘credentials’. I am a mother to two daughters; I’ve given birth twice, both times vaginally, neither time without intervention. I found one birth traumatic and one deeply and intensely healing. One pregnancy was life-threatening and high risk, the other was not. (The traumatic birth was not the one which resulted from the life-threatening pregnancy.) I’ve breastfed both daughters, both exclusively for 6 months, and for an extended period beyond that. 5 years in total with some crossover in babas being fed at the same time (only once literally at the same time thankfully, I HATED that). I’ve spent the entirety of my life as a mother in the struggle for bodily autonomy in pregnancy (whether ended or continued) and birth. Here in Ireland, with the 8th amendment limiting our rights in both, it was always clear to me that pregnancy and birth are a continuum and the restriction of our rights in one aspect of it will be used to restrict our rights in others. The fundamental right to ownership of one’s own body has always been to me one issue.

I do not care how anyone births as long as it’s the way that’s right for them; one they have chosen as freely as possible, one they feel safe and supported in, and in a pregnancy they’ve chosen to continue. Likewise I do not care how anyone feeds their baby as long as it’s the way that’s right for them; one they have chosen as freely as possible and one they have, if problems have been encountered, received appropriate, accurately informed, and timely support for. Unfortunately when women run into problems with breastfeeding this is all too often not the case. I don’t just mean the kind of ‘support’ that involves telling brand new mothers with bleeding nipples to ‘just’ pump instead (the casual disregard for the work and time of women inherent in this is enraging), though. I also mean the kind of support which ignores the realities of that woman’s life, particularly when she already has other very small children around to care for, on top of feeding herself, and no other adult in the home for most or all of the day. The kind of support which pretends the problems of capitalism and patriarchy, where women’s work of feeding and raising babies, doesn’t exist, being instead part of a magical and wonderful nurturing process that is bestowed on us by some earth mother fairy godmother type at birth, and that all will magically come right if you just ‘feed feed feed’. Peer support and advice can only compensate for so much; without an additional set of hands there in the home, many mothers will simply be unable to complete all the separate tasks they must do in a day to ensure each of their children, as well as themselves, are safe, clean and fed. For this to happen, that set of hands would need to be a paid worker, provided by the state, because the state recognises that mothering work, and the work of bringing babies into the world and feeding those babies once they’re there is work of value. I do not believe that we will see this happen while we continue to individualise the ‘problems’ and place the ‘responsibility’ for breastfeeding or not on each mother. As I once said to a friend in the aftermath of her own journey to breastfeed ending earlier than she wanted, with a baby who just wouldn’t latch, I am an advocate for women, not for breastfeeding. I want to support people, not a process.

This piece has been brewing in my mind for some time now, with much of it brought to the fore by some of the response to a US study that found in a cohort of 6,000+ women, induction did not raise the risk of c-section, and that a woman who chose not to have an induction at 39 weeks was more likely to have a c-section. I certainly think there are questions to be asked around this study – I would love to know the outcomes of the 16,000 women who declined to participate. The interrogation of the concept that there may be an element of self-selection in the participants is a welcome one too, and I would like to know to what degree that matters. I also think societies which consider free maternal healthcare to be a basic right for all may not be directly comparable to a society in which those who cannot afford maternal healthcare must go without it.  I would question too if it is reasonable to compare c section rates in a country in which some hospitals and indeed states will compel women to have c sections against their will to those which do not. I would also find far more interesting a trial which, for once, took into consideration the feelings of a large cohort of women about their births. There is a strong distinction to be drawn between the sometimes unavoidable damage to our health and bodies that pregnancy and birth can inflict and the always avoidable suffering and trauma that the denial of our autonomy wreaks upon us. As someone who has experienced both in different pregnancies, I found the former far easier to recover from.

In much the same way as I view breastfeeding, I do not believe in nor agree with the privileging of ‘natural’ pregnancy and birth above all else in the birth advocacy world. Not least because the insistence on ‘natural’ pregnancy as a process seems to me to be at odds with the struggle for our rights to choose to end or continue our pregnancies as we see fit. Please do not misunderstand me here; the fight for ownership of our own bodies in continued pregnancy and birth is frequently one that takes the path of having to defend our rights to say no to external intervention in pregnancy and in birth, rights which are all too often trampled on. But I simply do not agree that the one overarching goal of the entirety of the maternity and birth rights movement should be the prioritisation of ‘natural’ birth. I worry that the focus of this movement has shifted from our right to have the time and space and care to have the best birth for us, to the idea that there is only one best type of birth. It would be easy to understand how this might have happened, in societies in which all too often a medicalised pregnancy and birth is presented as the only option and in which it can frequently seem as though the intervention-free birth is only possible in one’s own home. But I am concerned that this focus on ‘natural’ birth, as distinct from the right birth for each birthing person simply creates a parallel between natural birth advocates and the paternalised medical system which so many of us have negative experiences of.  Again, I want to be an advocate for women and each individual woman or person’s right to own their own unique experience, not an advocate for a certain kind of pregnancy and birth. I don’t always believe that what’s ‘natural’ is best for each and every woman, but I do believe in every pregnant and birthing person’s right to fully informed choice. And I believe with that right, and with supportive, informed, qualified, involved carers, from whom the person giving birth has had continuity of care throughout pregnancy, everyone giving birth would have the perfect (though perhaps not natural) birth for them.

As a final note, I haven’t mentioned anything about babies, their rights, and their best outcomes in this piece. This is a deliberate choice on my part, in part because I believe that information (as pertaining to breastfeeding in particular) is pointless without the resources to implement it, and in part because I don’t believe that the outcomes for babies should weigh on anyone who is not their mother making decisions about their mother’s body. Nor do I believe it is my role as a mother who breastfed to advertise breastfeeding to other women. Each individual woman is the only person who is or ever will be in her shoes and is the only one possibly qualified to make the right call for her and her baby in their best interests.

 

Respect motherhood. Vote Yes.

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​Some of my best friends are mothers. I have to admit, I don’t envy them. I know they love their children, that they bring a lot of joy into their lives. I know if I had children I would feel that way too. But I also know that they had to give up a lot to become mothers, more than I would ever be happy to give up.

“Happy” is the wrong word, actually, because it seems that most of my friends are anything but happy about the price they’ve paid for motherhood. If anything, the ones who are co-parenting (at least with a man) are angrier about this than the single mams, because the fathers always promise more than they deliver. I listen as they share their frustration and resentment at how he still assumes the primary parenting and household duties to be hers; still feels entitled to aspects of his pre-parenthood life that she has long since resigned to the dustbin of her own past; expects praise and gratitude and a Dad of the Century award when he remembers to “help out”.

Added to this are the negative impacts that motherhood has had on her prospects for employment or promotion. The resentment she senses from female co-workers without children, who she suspects of seeing her reduced hours and frequent absences as a kind of special treatment. The barely concealed disdain from male co-workers, who she thinks see these things as evidence of lack of commitment to the job. Some of these male co-workers have children themselves, of course, but rarely have to prioritise their children over their work. That’s what their wives are for.

Then, too, there are the physical effects of childbirth [CN: obstetric trauma]. There’s a lot more of these than you probably know if you’ve never had children yourself, and as far as I can tell, none of them are good. Stretch marks, caesarean scars, vaginal laxity, hair loss, haemorrhagic periods, urinary incontinence – these are just the more common ones, the ones you can look forward to if you have a normal birth. If you’re one of the lucky ones. If you’re not, you could find yourself with a third or fourth degree perineal tear, pelvic organ prolapse, rectovaginal fistula, faecal incontinence, or Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction which, in particularly bad cases, leads to permanent reliance on mobility aids. Did you know spontaneous symphysiotomy is a thing? Neither did I, until I met a woman who had one.

If these injuries themselves are not lifelong (and many are), the psychological effects of them usually will be – and not just on the woman. They’ve destroyed marriages. They’ve also complicated mothers’ relationships with their children. One woman I know told me of her lifelong sense of guilt for not being able to bond with her baby properly – she was so injured by his birth that she couldn’t hold him. Other women speak of feeling some resentment towards the child themselves. They say this hesitantly, and often with enormous shame; aren’t they supposed to think “a healthy baby is all that matters”? Then they always feel the need to add the disclaimer that they love their child and don’t wish they hadn’t had it, they just wish things had gone differently. No doubt many of them mean this, but we’ll never know how many don’t. The mother who wishes she’d never had children is the one voice that is completely silent in the Repeal debate, just as she is everywhere else.

And then of course there are the women whom childbirth actually kills. Nowadays (though this wasn’t always the case) it’s usually medical negligence that’s to blame, but the outcome for the woman is the same. Ireland may be a relatively safe place to have a baby but that doesn’t change the fact that every year, a number of women die in our maternity hospitals – nor the fact that every woman who brings a pregnancy to term takes the risk of becoming one of those statistics.

This is what listening to women who are mothers has taught me: Motherhood is risky. Motherhood is difficult. Motherhood is sometimes life-threatening. It is always life-changing. Most of these changes are profound, though few are recognised as such, especially the bad ones.

When women have abortions for “social” reasons, when Yes campaigners call for legalisation without restriction as to reason, it is not, as the No campaign claims, because we take abortion “lightly”. It’s because we take motherhood seriously. We understand what it entails, and know that it should never be forced on someone who isn’t prepared to take it on. When No campaigners portray motherhood as no more than a minor inconvenience – or, worse yet, as a suitable penalty for “mis”behaviour – they belittle every woman who has ever sacrificed an important part of her life in order to have a child.

My own mother was already a mother when she had me. She knew it was no picnic. She held an MSc which wasn’t put to use again for many years after my siblings and I were born. She could have had a legal abortion in the place where we were living. Of course, I am grateful she didn’t. But I am also thankful for her that she had the choice. Done under duress, I can’t imagine how much harder her job would have been.

For all that Irish society purports to revere motherhood, the problem is we don’t really respect it.  The myriad of ways that that needs to change are, for the most part, a subject for another blog post (I’ll just leave “proper remuneration” here for now). But we can take a big step very quickly by taking compulsory motherhood out of our Constitution – recognising it as too important a role to impose on the unready or unwilling.

Respect motherhood. Vote Repeal.

Let’s talk about sex

Let’s talk about sex

Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network

If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.

We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.

Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.

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Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.

This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.

Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.

Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.

Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).

Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.

Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.

We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.

Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.

If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.

Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.

If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.

Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.

– Emma C

Belfast Feminist Network

 

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On pregnant women and disabled children, in a society that cares for neither

For as long as I can remember, women have been warned to adjust our behaviour – before and during pregnancy (as if there was no third option) – to keep us from having disabled children. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t get pregnant after 40. Take folic acid. The need to prevent the birth of disabled children has become such a societal imperative that women have found themselves harassed for having a glass of wine while pregnant, refused service, criminalised, and even sterilised to achieve this goal. The message that underlies all this is clearly one of the undesirability of disability (as well, of course, of it being the woman’s fault).

Obviously there’s a difference between trying to prevent disability in an otherwise healthy pregnancy, and terminating the pregnancy you actually have because of a disability. But that difference isn’t captured by many of the arguments we’re hearing from the anti-repeal side, which talk about birth rates for children with Down Syndrome in Iceland and solemnly warn about a future with no disabled children, in language appropriating the Holocaust. Their stats about Iceland are wrong, as we know, but what if they were right – and what if the reason they were right was not because of high abortion rates where DS was detected, but because of health or lifestyle changes that helped diminish the incidence of DS pregnancies in the first place? Would they be out protesting folic acid suppliers for their role in the genocide of disabled children?

Of course they wouldn’t, and this most of all is what bothers me about the use of children with Down Syndrome in anti-abortion campaigns. It’s a sort of fetishisation of disability, something they would otherwise find deeply undesirable, something they would actually put women in prison to prevent. I’m aware of course that people with disabilities have their own – non-homogeneous – views about their disabilities (no doubt deeply influenced by the barriers society places in front of them, something anti-choicers show little concern about) but that’s not the place where the anti-repeal leaders are coming from. Especially when you know they’d be the first to criticise women for not doing pregnancy right.

Damned if we do have disabled children, damned if we don’t. Almost as if it’s not really about the children at all.

 

With thanks to Danielle and Beth

Pregnant Child Detained in Mental Institution For Asking For An Abortion

To access a life saving abortion in Ireland requires 3 medical professionals (two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) to agree that the woman is at risk of taking her own life. As the recent case of a young girl  shows it only takes one psychiatrist however to get sectioned for wanting an abortion in Ireland.

The girl was legally classed as a child and her identity has understandably been withheld so we know nothing more about her other than that she had an unwanted pregnancy and that when she sought an abortion from her healthcare professionals she was of the understanding that she was being taken to Dublin for the procedure. However unbeknownst to her the consultant psychiatrist had given evidence at a hearing to detain her under the Mental Health Act.

“The consultant psychiatrist was of the opinion that while the child was at risk of self harm and suicide as a result of the pregnancy, this could be managed by treatment and that termination of the pregnancy was not the solution for all of the child’s problems at that stage.”

How frightening it must have been for her to find herself in a mental hospital after travelling to Dublin expecting an abortion. We are told it was “days” later that another hearing was held that resulted in her discharge from the mental hospital. During this time her court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) had employed another consultant psychiatrist to access her and on the basis of their evidence the girl was released from the institution. She spent unnecessary “days” in a mental institution for the “crime” of nothing more than wanting an abortion.

I’ve heard numerous reports of suicidal people trying to access mental health units in Irish hospitals who have been sent away. In future I’ll suggest to those of them who are capable of getting pregnant to say they’re pregnant and want an abortion, as that seems to be a sure way to get sectioned.

This case raises a number of questions. How is it that it only took one psychiatrist to have the girl sectioned? Why was the PLDP act not enacted for this pregnant, suicidal child? How can the public be assured that the personal beliefs of medical professionals won’t interfere with them being able to access the healthcare they need? Did Government Ministers know of the case at the time?

Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) spokesperson Linda Kavanagh said:

“Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs. It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”

This is the latest case in a long line of women and girls who have been failed by the state. Ms X was another suicidal child prevented from accessing an abortion in 1992 and Ms Y a teenage rape victim likewise led to believe she would be given an abortion and instead detained against her will. Ireland has a disgraceful history stretching back to the Magdalene Laundries of locking up pregnant women.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is supposed to “protect” women who are at risk of taking their own lives, not used as a tool to lock women who want abortions up.

The Irish Government are allowing this human rights abuse to happen on their watch, leaving a trail of abused and sometimes dead women, girls and children behind them.

Rally to Repeal is on Saturday 17th in Dublin. If you can’t go please contact your local T.Ds and ask them to urgently implement the findings of the Citizens Assembly.

You can sign an UPLIFT petition here:https://action.uplift.ie/campaigns/187

*I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Child Law Project. We would know nothing of this case if it wasn’t for their work. Since 2012 they have been able to report to the public on child care proceedings in the courts, they aim to report on 10% of cases.

I am not a nun, I am a midwife: maternity care in a “modern” Ireland

The author of this guest post wishes to remain anonymous.

I attended a protest at the Department of Health yesterday to highlight people’s outrage at the handing over of the new National Maternity Hospital site to the religious order of the Sisters of Charity. I went as a member of Midwives for Choice, and I expected to help hold the banner and maybe video our spokesperson speaking. As it happened she could not, fearful as she was of her job by speaking out against St Vincent’s Hospital Group. So it ended up that I had a microphone and a megaphone pointed in my direction. My reaction? I froze. My voice is an inside my head voice, for the most part; I can’t even speak up in small group conversations mostly. So for anyone who wanted to know why there were midwives behind a banner, here are my thoughts.

I’m already scared that I’m a nun. All the older nurses and midwives in our hospitals were trained by nuns and they tell of the iron fist, regimented care and much else. Sometimes with respect and awe, sometimes fear, sometimes relief that they are all but gone.

The church’s legacy is strong within our healthcare system. Many if not most hospitals in the state have some church connection (religious members on boards, etc). Yet the history of church-run institutions in this country reads like a horror story, from the Magdalene Laundries to the institutional schools. Say it slowly with me: the institutions of the Catholic Church are inherently misogynistic. Women’s bodies will always suffer under them. They are beyond redemption.

Finally, this is the generation where the church’s abuses are being exposed. We are sickened as a nation to our very core about the Tuam babies, symphysiotomies, Magdalene Laundries, the abuse of our children by priests and nuns. Finally we should have hope that our society will stand up and say no more, that we can extricate our institutions from the grasp of the religious. It will be a slow but worthwhile process. When we can get the church out of our government, our laws, our schools, our healthcare systems, our bodies, maybe finally we can have a humane secular society.

That’s what most of us were thinking, surely, in the wake of the Tuam babies case? Please save us from the church? Then what the hell is this move? It’s as Irish a decision as getting your kid baptised to have a family get-together… and maybe to get into the local school. Cop on, Ireland. Stop being so short-sighted, so disingenuous. If we know something is wrong – and by God we know the Sisters of Charity have done wrong – then let’s stand up against it.

As a midwife, my role in supporting women to make informed decisions around their care in pregnancy and childbirth is already curtailed by the patriarchal, over-medicalised, over-litigious, under-staffed, no-continuity, factory-model, fire-fighting maternity system in place here. But at least women in Ireland are starting to take back power, to demand evidence-based care and proper time to birth. Even if this is something that our systems literally cannot provide at present, at least there is an awareness that what we have now is not good enough.

It feels like a change, this last 10 years: women are coming together; midwives are coming together; there is a politicisation, a will to change, even if it can’t quite find traction within our systems yet. There is a recognition that the 8th Amendment is a barrier to proper maternity care; where the fetus and the woman have equal rights within our constitution, any perceived risk to the well-being of a fetus overrides even real and substantial risks to a woman’s health and well-being. Our National Consent Policy directly points to the 8th Amendment as being a reason why pregnant people do not have a legal right to informed consent and refusal of treatment. Women leaving this system will attest to being railroaded and sidelined within their own care (see Aims Ireland testimonials).

I work within the system as it is now. While, individually, I strive to do my very best for each woman I care for, I know that the system is letting them down. I know that women are leaving our maternity system traumatised and broken down. Childbirth itself is not an inherently traumatic event. It is what we do to women in the name of “safety”: ass-covering and over-intervention without proper thought, consideration, conversation and shared decision-making with the people whose bodies we care for.

This brings me back to my first point: I already fear that I’m a nun. When the Tuam babies story broke, as well as the horror and the disgust that we all felt, I had a sneaking fear lurking… Those nuns were midwives. What if I’m a nun? What if I were a nun in Tuam, entering the institution to try to do my best for the forgotten and ostracised single mothers. What if I was kind as I caught their babies and helped them to their mother’s breast. What if I was gentle as I cared for infants while their mothers worked, coming back to feed them on schedule. What if my heart hurt as I dried the tears of a mother whose baby was adopted out to America. What if I felt sick with fear as I saw too many little babies dying. What if I knew that they weren’t being buried so that the money for them would keep coming in. What if I turned a blind eye because I was just a little nun cog-in-the-wheel. Sometimes I fear that I’m just a little midwife cog-in-the-wheel.

So I have to go and hold banners. I have to add my face to pictures and my feet to marches. I have to overcome my fear of putting my job in jeopardy by being seen to be overly-political, overly-public, overly-outspoken. I have to find my voice as a midwife and encourage others to find theirs… even if I’m not quite ready for the microphone and the megaphone. I have to nod to pro-choice badge-wearers and pro-choice colleagues. I have to have small conversations in work and outside of it. I have to join Facebook groups, scribble my thoughts, cuddle my loved ones, help my pregnant friends, and I have to breathe and tell myself I am not a nun. I am a midwife. I am with-woman not with-institution, however hard that is in my everyday work. I will stay within the institution because free maternity care is a public right and should be available to all, not just those who can afford health insurance and private midwifery care.

Some day I dream of the true mind and body safety that comes with continuity of midwifery care for all women, and the true informed relational decision-making that can only happen when our maternity institutions are built back up to humane levels, free of the stranglehold of patriarchal and religious control – both constitutionally and structurally. We have a chance in Ireland to reject our broken past and to go forward with conscious intent to do the right thing. So Repeal the 8th Amendment. And take back the National Maternity Hospital from the Sisters of Charity.