“How many children have you?” asked
The big Redemptorist.
When was it born?”
“Ten months ago.”
“I cannot absolve your mortal sin
Until you conceive again. Go home,
Obey your husband.”
The doctor warned me…”
Her coffin lid. She twisted her thin hands
And left the box.
Red-bearded saint, had brought hell’s flame
To frighten women on retreat:
Sent on his spiritual errand,
It rolled along the village street
Until Rathfarnham was housing smoke
That sooted the Jesuits in their Castle.
“No pregnancy. You’ll die the next time,”
The Doctor had said.
Her tiredness obeyed
That Saturday night: her husband’s weight
Digging her grave So, in nine months, she
Sank in great agony on a Monday
Her children wept in the Orphanage,
Huddled together in the annexe,
While, proud of the Black Cross on his badge,
The Liguorian, at Adam and Eve’s,
Ascended the pulpit, sulphuring his sleeves
And setting fire to the holy text.
I don’t know about you, but personally I am tired.
As a woman in Ireland in 2017 I am tired and battle sore. I also find it incredulous that we are still fighting for the basic human right of autonomy over our reproductive and sexual health.
Why does everything in this country in relation to maternal health have to be so hard-fought? It is simply exhausting.
It shouldn’t be this hard, but it is.
In May 2015 I cheered along with the vast majority of Ireland when the same-sex marriage referendum was passed. I remember it was a beautiful sunny day and I was six months pregnant. I cried tears of pure joy that my daughter would be born into what promised to be a more inclusive, tolerant and kinder society.
During the highly divisive and at times bitter debate I heard the most hurtful things from the NO side.
They said that people who use Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) with donor eggs or sperm set out to deny their children a right to a mother or a father. That donor egg conception deliberately denied the child the opportunity to be cared for their biological mother.
Those that know me know that after six years of IVF treatment, heartache, failure and steely determination to keep going against all the odds for the wonderful chance to be a mum, I finally got my happy ending in August 2015 when I gave birth to my beautiful daughter. You may also know that she was conceived thanks to the wonderful generosity of an anonymous egg donor.
The Catholic Church believes that any form of assisted human reproduction is wrong. It leaves infertile people who wish to be parents feeling isolated and heartbroken. It also condemns women who for whatever reason need access to an abortion to the exact same fate.
The historical ties that bind our reproductive health to Catholicism in this country forces women faced with the knowledge that their much longed for and deeply loved babies will not survive outside the womb, due to the cruelty of a fatal foetal abnormality, to travel abroad for a termination.
These babies are named, cherished and remembered. Their mothers, some of whom are forced to bring their tiny bodies home in a box, are cruelly banished, rejected and forgotten. This is wrong.
The Catholic ethos believes that abortion in any circumstance is wrong.
If a woman is raped, if she is pregnant and has a comorbid physical or mental health condition such that the pregnancy puts her life at risk, if her abusive husband is a threat to the baby in her womb, or if she has made a decision about her own reproductive health that for whatever reason she can simply cannot continue with the pregnancy, the Catholic church says no.
Maternal Mental Health
If a woman makes the desperate decision that she would rather take her own life than go on with an unwanted pregnancy she has to justify this decision to three separate medical professionals. In the case of a physical illness it is two.
The latest report from the Confidential Maternal Death Enquiry (MDE) Ireland revealed that seven mothers died by suicide in Ireland between 2012 and 2014 within one year of the end of their pregnancies.
Women with mental health difficulties in pregnancy or the postnatal period in Ireland need support.
However when a pregnant woman’s mental health is in crisis in Ireland today the supports she desperately needs are simply not there.
There are just three perinatal psychiatrists or doctors who specialise in maternal mental health in Ireland and all of them are based on Dublin, one in each of the three maternity hospitals. They are all part-time.
While thankfully extremely rare, suicide in pregnancy does happen and it is still one of the leading causes of maternal death.
Pregnancy therefore is not a protective factor for mental illness. On the contrary, it is a time in a woman’s life when her mental health and the wellbeing of her baby can be most at risk.
Yet despite this, there are no specialised mental health services for women in pregnancy and in the postnatal period outside Dublin.
The absence of a mother and baby unit (MBU) where a mother who needs inpatient psychiatric care can bring her newborn baby with her has been described as “a continuing and regrettable deficiency in the Irish health services.”
There are approximately 20 Mother and Baby Units in the UK.
There are no such units in Ireland North or South.
So women who are seriously ill and need admission are usually cared for in a general adult psychiatric hospital where they are separated from their newborn babies.
To separate a mother and baby at a very early stage in a baby’s development for such a prolonged period may well have a detrimental impact on the developing mother-infant relationship and on the recovery of the mother herself.
Thankfully there has been recent acknowledgement of the need for more funding and resources for maternal mental health and hopefully we will shortly see some real developments in this area. But again this was hard-fought.
I cheered again recently when the Citizens’ Assembly voted overwhelmingly to support a motion to replace the eighth amendment. I hoped that this was a clear and unambiguous message to the Government that we need to liberalise Ireland’s highly restrictive and in my opinion cruel abortion laws.
New Maternity Hospital
However my cheering was cut short when news emerged that the ownership of the new maternity hospital to be built on the site of St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin was to be given to a Catholic order.
There is absolutely no doubt that women in Ireland deserve a world-class maternity hospital co located with an acute adult facility. It is also crystal clear that Holles St; a 123-year-old hospital, is simply not fit for purpose and St Vincent’s is logically the best place for the new maternity hospital to be built.
Given the long and disturbing history Ireland has with the Catholic Church, a history, which has harmed women and babies, the public outcry over this decision, was in my opinion justified. Over the past few weeks valid concerns have been raised and communicated in a reasonable and balanced manner by highly respected professionals. This has resulted in more information being made available to the public and much needed assurances of clinical independence.
Theses assurances issued in recent weeks are very welcome but they should have been given at the time of the decision to relocate.
Yes proponents for the move have said assurances that the new hospital would be independent of any religious ethos were given at the time but clearly given the outcry in recent weeks they were not communicated clearly enough.
Women in Ireland are intelligent, compassionate and loyal. Speak to us in a clear and concise manner. Listen to us; you might learn something.
Women in Ireland are also tired and battle weary. However if history has taught us anything it is that we need the brave female and male voices of groups such as Termination for Medical Reasons Ireland, all those associated with Repeal the Eighth Amendment, mental health advocates and those who have raised valid concerns in recent weeks.
I am tired, I am not sure about you. However, I look at my beautiful 20-month-old daughter and know that the fight must go on.
The historical umbilical cord that binds our wombs to the ethos of the Catholic Church must be severed now and forever.
If not then the fight will go on and on and our daughters will be forced to take our place on the front line.
I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to grow up in a country that respects the decisions she makes over her own reproductive health. I also want her to grow up in a country that supports, protects and wraps its arms around her.
Ultimately I want her to grow up in a country where she is cared for by compassionate and kind professionals, unfettered by the ties of religion or restrictive laws, who can look into her beautiful blue eyes and honestly assure her that everything will be ok.