Friday 30 September 2016

Constitutionally, women are still breeding machines

We need to change how we view a woman's role in society if we want our care of pregnant women to improve, writes Carol Hunt

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Carol Hunt
Carol Hunt

It's dubbed the "woman in the home" clause. Article 42.1 of our Constitution implies quite clearly that every Irish woman should know where her place is in society. And that place is at home, having babies and minding the house. The excellent work of the recent People's Constitutional Convention recommended that the archaic article be amended to provide "gender equality and parity between the sexes".

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The Government did not dare support that practical advice. The traditionalists would have had apoplexy. So, in addition to equal marriage, we got to vote on the age of the President which, though welcome, was hardly going to change the face of Irish society.

Neither, says you, would amending Article 42.1. Sure, don't we all ignore the lines that say: "By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties within the home"?

Well, we may try to, but the fact that constitutionally the words "woman" and "mother" are interchangeable while the existence of the single father is ignored impacts on our lives rather more than we may think. Society takes its cue from the baseline that is our Constitution. Education, religion, health - all of our social values and rights - are shaped by the words within our Constitution. Combine the articles which conflate the terms "woman and "mother", her "role within the home" and add the one which equates the value of her life to that of a foetus and you understand what the primary job of a woman in Irish society is still seen as a vessel for bearing children and caring for them.

This is why we are so often told by our public representatives that Ireland is one of the best places in the world to give birth to a child. Well, the analysis of statistics of childbirth shows that Ireland is similar to other EU countries, but what those statistics don't reveal is the experiences behind those childbirths - or miscarriages.

During the past weeks we've all been shocked by the revelations of the Hiqa report into practices at Portlaoise Hospital. Well, some of us have. Others - women who have been traumatised by experiences in Irish maternity hospitals - have not been so surprised. They would probably echo the comments of HSE chief Tony O'Brien that a review is needed to remove those working in Irish maternity units "that seem to have a significant lack of compassion".

Two years ago, while the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill was being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas, I wrote a piece called "I am just collateral damage in Walsh's self-righteous crusade" detailing my horror at a speech made by Senator Jim Walsh (which Senator Mary-Louise O'Donnell described as "oral porn") where he seemed to wallow in descriptions of suicides, self-abuse, depression, relationship failure, alcohol and substance abuse - all of which would befall the unfortunate women who, for whatever reasons, had to undergo an abortion. He detailed in graphic terms the horrors that the foetus would suffer during an abortion or termination or whatever you wish to call it.

I wrote that I had experienced what was called a 'missed abortion' (the foetus dies in the womb and an abortion is needed to remove it) many years ago; that the treatment I had received while in an Irish maternity hospital still haunted me and that Walsh's comments had brought back excruciatingly painful memories.

In short: I was admitted to hospital with back pain just a few days after myself and my partner had announced we were expecting a child. We thought we were past the 12-week danger stage. Even when I was given a scan and told to return in a week, I still thought everything was fine. When I returned to have another scan the following week, the woman at the machine turned to the nurse beside me and said: "It's definitely gone. Bring her upstairs and get it out."

Nothing was explained to me and I had to grab a passing nurse to ask what was going on. There was no heartbeat. I was given a pessary to bring on a miscarriage and left alone for hours, bleeding and in pain, until they "remembered" that I was there and brought me to theatre for an "abortion".

I wrote how the next day "tragedy turned to farce" as instead of an ambulance back to the hospital where I was being treated for my back pain, a taxi was called. It detoured to collect a staff member from the hospital and her friend, and all their shopping, and delivered them home before getting me back to hospital. Not even the creators of Father Ted could make this stuff up, I wrote, thinking it was a grotesque aberration in Irish maternity treatment.

I believed that the fact I was unmarried, in a very Catholic hospital, explained the casually cruel treatment I experienced, but immediately after my piece was published, a plethora of similar - and much, much worse - tales of suffering in Irish maternity hospitals began to roll in. A special Twitter account (@maternityire) was set up by June Travers who had suffered two miscarriages in 2008 and, following her experiences, believed that there was a "lack of care and compassion for women who lose their babies". She said: "Suddenly I got angry. I wasn't isolated. I wasn't unlucky. It wasn't my fault. This is happening to lots of women over and over again".

And then the stories started pouring in. Tales of women left bleeding alone in wards; of being told that the loss of their babies was "God's will"; of women being forced to carry dead foetuses inside them until natural birth occurred, with no thought of the psychological pain or impact -­­­­ no care. Tales of women who had just suffered miscarriages being put into wards with the mothers of newly born babies; of women being sent home after a devastating loss and blithely told to "try again"; of women denied the right to say goodbye to their much wanted stillborn babies; women who were ignored, their feelings and opinions derided, their very experiences disregarded.

Last spring, AIMS Ireland (Association for Improvement in the Maternity Services) published 'What Matters To You, a report on Consent in the Irish Maternity System'. Basically, it revealed that many women who interact with Irish maternity services do not feel that they are being listened to, particularly if they are in the public, as opposed to the private, system. Relating to "consent", the phrases, "lack of choice", "traumatic birthing", feelings of "having no control" or "not being listened to" were common.

It can be quite difficult for women to open up about experiences of miscarriage or the premature death of their babies. And certainly Irish society does not encourage it ­- it goes against our description of women as being purely "mothers" in our Constitution. It's seen as something shameful - why would you want to wash your failed pregnancy laundry in public?

When I wrote about my experience of miscarriage two years ago I was accused of being "unprincipled", of pulling a "cheap stunt" and of being "emotionally dishonest" (interestingly these accusations came mainly from those on the No side in the referendum).

What I said went against the idealised image of the Irish Woman in our Constitution so much loved by traditionalists; by those who fought to keep contraception, divorce and equal marriage from being legalised in our country; who still fight to retain the constitutional articles that keep women firmly in their designated place.

The independent advocacy group planned to ensure that the voices of patients are listened to is a welcome first step in addressing the problems in our maternity services. More funding is a no-brainer. But a re-appraisal of a woman's role in Irish society as stated in our Constitution is also needed if hearts and attitudes are to change. Roll on the next referendum.

@carolmhunt

Sunday Independent

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