Friday 18 August 2017

'We hang our heads in shame' - Citizens' Assembly hears response from Catholic Bishop over Tuam babies

The Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy
The Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy

Laura Lynott

A CATHOLIC bishop said “we hang our heads in shame” after a member of the Citizens’ Assembly from Tuam questioned how the Church could comment on abortion issues after the unearthing of mass baby graves at its former mother and baby home.

The Tuam woman took a defiant and out of the ordinary stance at the Assembly, when she used the opportunity to put the Church on the spot, asking the Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy and National Director for Catechetics, Kate Liffey, exactly why they felt they should speak on abortion after the scandal.

“How does the Church expect us to go along with [the Church’s pro-life stance] given the horrific track record the Church and religious orders have when dealing with the most vulnerable, as you call them yourself, the voiceless weak, in our society historically?” she asked.

“And specifically in light of the recent discovery of the 780 babies bodies thrown into septic tanks in Tuam and coincidentally, I’m from Tuam myself.”

Chair Justice Mary Laffoy said she didn’t know if the question was “relevant” but the Tuam woman responded it was and the question was allowed.

“It’s the stance that everyone has a right to life regardless of the situation,” she said.  “How do they correlate the two when the historic track record is, as it stands for itself?”

Bishop Leahy, who was representing Catholic Bishops along with Ms Liffey, responded:   “We’re all as shocked about this as everyone else but it brings home to us the key point that a society has to both the born and unborn, welcome them, care for them and protect them.

“This is a renewed wake up call to us all. This is essential.

“We hang our heads in shame but it brings us back to the fact that this is what we want, to promote a culture that really does care for life before and after birth.”

Ms Liffey added that as “an ordinary Catholic, that I spent the weekend deeply upset by myself and I spent a lot of time actually reflecting did I want to be here, did I want to speak given that what’s been uncovered in Tuam.

“I deeply respect where you’re coming from but I believe passionately as a Catholic the right to life of the unborn child.

“That isn’t to diminish in any way what happened in the past, it’s simply to say this is the question we were asked to look at today and that’s why I’m here.”

A pro-choice mother of a young woman with special needs said she found it “offensive” that pro-life lobbyists at the Assembly were giving “an impression” abortion rights campaigners didn’t care about disabled children.

Jane Donnelly, from Atheist Ireland, had not been scheduled to speak about her own personal life but did so to counter pro-life comments made during the Assembly.

“Today we had the impression people that are pro choice don’t care about children with disabilities and we just want to abort them, or we don’t love them” Ms Donnelly said.

“That is not true. I have a child with special needs and I love her dearly, I really love her an awful lot.

“I found today a little offensive in that regard because I’m still pro-choice and I’m not going to take the right of any woman to make that choice.

“It’s a long difficult path when you have a child with special needs.  I didn’t bring my baby today because my baby is now an adult but I was there when she woke up at night, the state weren’t there.

“There was nobody else there, her parents were there.  All through her childhood and into her young adulthood now, we are the people that are there.

“There’s no state agency knocking on my door.  They don’t care. I hope that they will care but I’m not going to sit here and take the right of any woman to go through the journey that I have taken away from her, that’s her choice and we should all respect that.

“I care and we care for the children with special needs and I love my daughter but I am pro-choice.”

The unexpected and emotional comment received an applause from the Assembly after a length day which heard 17 speakers from both sides of the pro-choice and pro-life campaigns.

One speaker included a pro-life campaigner who brought her special needs child to the Assembly.

Sinead McBreen claimed she had been advised to have a termination by doctors in Ireland, but she went on to give birth to her daughter, Grace, who has down syndrome.

“When I was pregnant with Grace, who’s two-and-a-half and is perfect in every way, we were told 100 per cent she wouldn’t survive.

“We were pressured to terminate at every appointment.  We were made feel foolish to continue with a pregnancy that wasn’t going anywhere. They dehumanised her.

“I was told get on with my life at home, why continue with this pregnancy.  We were told pick a plot for my baby.  I continued my pregnancy. 

“I was told she’s one in a million, she’s a miracle (for surviving).”

Ms McBreen, who accompanied Cora Sherlock, from the Pro Life Campaign, claimed numerous mothers of children with down syndrome had come to her with similar stories and were “told their child wouldn’t survive.  The pressure is there already.”

She claimed a mother from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, had contacted her recently to tell her medical pressure was being put on her to terminate her foetus, found to have down syndrome.

“She’s been told she can still go for a termination at 20 weeks,” she said.  

“It’s frightening.  Already this information is being given to mums as it was given to us, so I feel the Eighth Amendment protected Grace and protected me.

“We carried on with our pregnancy.  If I listened to the nurses, doctors, who said she wouldn’t survive...but this is why I’m here today.

“They’re beautiful children.”  She added that she was “frightened” to see other countries heading down a road where down syndrome children were being aborted.

“As a mother it frightens me that people don’t want a child like mine.  I’m proud of the fact our children are cherished and protected.”

Colm O’Gorman, executive director from Amnesty International Ireland, also reacted angrily to the pro-life lobby’s handling of the pro-choice-disability issue.

He said that if any “pressure” had been applied by a doctor to a pregnant woman in Ireland to get an abortion, that in reality this would be “a criminal matter.”

Mr O’Gorman added that disability campaigners had already highlighted that they realised women had abortions for a variety of reasons including lack of state support, and that they felt it was vital for disabled women and those with mental health disabilities “who may need access to abortion,” to be able to do so “without discrimination.”

He stated that Ireland was “unique” for the way it “celebrates” down syndrome and that this was down to the “love and care” of families who should be “respected” for the choices they made “whatever care path they choose in their circumstances.”

Ailbhe Smyth, from the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth, said the “historical treatment of unmarried women in Ireland and their babies is not something we are proud of.

“From the magdalene laundries to the mother and baby homes and orphanages, women and babies have been punished for being outside of marriage, hidden away, often called fallen women, incarcerated and often abused until the ‘90s.

“This was a history all to sadly reaffirmed by a mass grave of hundreds of small children buried...we are good at burying the truth.

“The truth is our laws continue to coerce and restrict pregnant women and treat them as potential criminals.

“We can’t end violations of women’s freedoms as long as the Eighth Amendment remains in our constitution.”

The Assembly meets again on the 22 and 23 of April to focus on formulating, agreeing and voting on recommendations to the Oireachtas.

Justice Laffoy said she anticipated this would be “challenging” and that further experts may need to be called.

“The results of the vote will form the recommendations we will provide to the Houses of the Oireachtas.”

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