How can we say we value motherhood when so many see it as a punishment?
What would happen if we, as a nation, really appreciated the Irish mammy? Women of childbearing age in Ireland carry our reproductive organs around like chains. We live in constant fear of contraceptive failure and are aware that many in our society believe that a woman ‘silly enough to have sex’ – must deal with the consequences of that fun. It doesn’t matter if that ‘fun’ is consensual or not, it doesn’t matter if it’s a 15 year old girl half way through school, a young women who’s finally got that place at university or a professional who’s finally got that promotion for which she worked so hard – she’s been ‘caught’ and now must pay the penance for having sex.
How can we say we value motherhood when we see it as a punishment?
The UN classifies forced pregnancy as a form of torture; Ireland sees it as part and parcel of life. The Irish state has a long history of institutional disregard for women’s autonomy: forcing women to have children they do not want, taking wanted children from unmarried mothers (often placing them in abusive industrial schools) and performing Symphysiotomies – brutal surgeries – on women during childbirth without their consent.
Today a woman who becomes pregnant in Ireland and who does not want to see the pregnancy through to full-term, can be jailed for up to 14 years if an abortion is procured here. Recent Amnesty International/Red C polls showed that 64% of the population weren’t even aware that it’s a crime to get an abortion in Ireland when your life is not at risk.
Often young girls and women are praised continuing with pregnancy, they’re commended for making the ‘right choice’, and not travelling abroad. The truth is though, there is so much stigma around abortion — the choice of terminating a pregnancy isn’t necessarially one that is available, or that’s even been presented to them. They are praised for having their babies – until the pregnancy is over.
Many women who become mothers before finding a loving partner, or before they have secured employment through training and education, find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of low-paying jobs, underemployment, or unemployment, all the while expected to be happy with whatever scraps the state throws their way. Financial supports for single mothers have been slashed; medical cards for many parents of disabled children have been revoked and we wonder why people think about ending a pregnancy when they can’t afford to feed children they already have.
Those who call for a repeal of the 8th Amendment, on the grounds that the women living in Ireland in 2015 should and must have the right to bodily autonomy, are ignored by those who fear women being able to make decisions regarding their own body. However, if we were to set aside our pro-choice or anti-choice banners for a moment, and really look at the issue we could see that the 8th is not good for anyone in a wanted or unwanted pregnancy.
Article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution states
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
In reality this ‘equal right’ does not exist. When a woman becomes pregnant in Ireland she is immediately stripped of her basic human rights. Her consent is no longer required for any medical procedure in pregnancy or childbirth. A deceased person’s family is called upon to consent to organ donation, however a pregnant woman in Ireland does not apparently deserve any opportunity to provide informed consent when it comes to the treatment of her body during pregnancy.
Article 7.7 of the National Consent Policy states
“The consent of a pregnant woman is required for all health and social care interventions. However, because of the constitutional provisions on the right to life of the “unborn”, there is significant legal uncertainty regarding the extent of a pregnant woman’s right to refuse treatment in circumstances in which the refusal would put the life of a viable fetus at serious risk. In such circumstances, legal advice should be sought as to whether an application to the High Court is necessary.”
Ask your mother, your grandmother or your sister how she was treated the day she gave birth. Many women don’t have negative experiences with their maternity care, for some it is a beautiful day where they feel so supported and strong that they could walk through fire. However for others, she will recount with frightening clarity, how things were not explained to her, how the midwife chastised her when she cried, how she begged them not to cut her and they did it anyway.
Do women not deserve better? Do women not deserve to be treated as dignified human beings? For consent to be valid it must be voluntary and informed. No amount of kindness of nurses and doctors can ever make up for a woman being denied evidence-based care. When best practice is being ignored, we cannot say that we value women.
Right now, in maternity hospitals all over Ireland, women are being denied this basic right, they are either having their consent assumed, details not fully explained to them, or are being threatened with the High Court or Child Protection Orders when they do not provide this ‘consent’.
In 2014, a judge ruled against a woman who took a case known as Hamilton -v- HSE against Kerry General Hospital after they performed an ARM (artificial rupture of membranes). This caused a cord prolapse and could have killed her baby. There was no medical reason for the ARM and the mother had not consented. The judge ruled that this did not matter, outlining that he felt Ms. Hamilton’s position on the bed implied her consent and, in a final cruel act to deter any woman from thinking of doing the same, he awarded costs against her.
We can argue about the 8th amendment until we are blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is it affects everyone. Women deserve access to compassionate, evidence-based care and the right to be treated with dignity. If we are to truly value motherhood then we have to value a woman’s choice in pregnancy and birth. Whether that means choosing not to be a mother right now, or ever. Or whether it means going into a maternity hospital and feeling safe knowing that you will not be maimed or traumatised or silenced.
Mothers make up 61% of those accessing abortion services in the U.S. Part of motherhood is making the difficult choices and doing what’s best for the children you already have. For me, as a mother, that statistic resonates. I suffered with a pregnancy complication that affects up to 1% of pregnant women and I would be almost guaranteed to suffer from it again in any subsequent pregnancies. I wouldn’t choose to be away from my son for 9 months, in a hospital, depressed, unable to tuck him in at night. Knowing how dangerous another pregnancy could be for my physical and mental wellbeing would I risk leaving him without a mother? I don’t know. What I do know is it should be my choice to make, and not yours.
*May 2010. Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients, 2008 Rachel K. Jones, Lawrence B. Finer and Susheela Singh
**Full judgement in the case of Hamilton v Hse