Friday 19 January 2018

Crisis Pregnancies: A matter of life and death

Terence Cosgrave meets Anne Kennedy, CEO of Life, which has been helping women deal with crisis pregnancies for 30 years

Terence Cosgrave

In the late 1970s, a friend of Anne Kennedy was working in an office where the big topic of conversation among the staff was 'the affair'.

One of the girls had got into a relationship with a married colleague and was pregnant.

There was still a strong stigma against single mothers at the time -- and state financial help was virtually non-existent.

So the view of many of the female staff was that their colleague would have no choice but to 'get rid of it' or put the baby up for adoption.

When the man involved offered to pay the costs of an abortion, a lot of colleagues agreed that not alone was this a generous offer (divorce being unheard of at the time) but it was also the best thing for the woman involved.

Anne Kennedy didn't go along with this view.

"I couldn't get past the fact that there was a human life involved," she recalls, "and I couldn't see any solution possible that didn't consider that aspect."

It was a debate that dramatically changed Anne's life. Now, three decades later, she heads up an organisation, Life, that is dedicated to helping women like her former colleague.

She first joined the Life organisation as a volunteer -- now she is the chief executive. As the counselling body celebrates its 30th anniversary, she reflects on the changes she's witnessed. However, one of the things that hasn't changed is that the service continues to be free.

It is funded through the Health Service Executive's Crisis Pregnancy Agency and through charitable donations. This allows Life to run centres in Galway, Cork, Thurles and at its head office in Dame Street in Dublin.

With its motto -- 'Life cares for you both' -- Life aims to provide advice and help for women who want to keep their baby despite the difficulties a crisis pregnancy can bring.

When she started with Life, having a baby outside marriage was still seen as "shameful" by many people.

Thousands of single women would take the ferry and train to London to have a secret abortion. Others, often counselled by Life volunteers, would choose to go through with the pregnancy despite the perceived stigma.

Today Anne sees a very different scene. According to the Central Statistics Office, about one-third of births in Ireland are to single women. About half of these births are to unmarried parents living at the same address -- which would indicate co-habiting parents.

But married women, and those in long-term relationships, are increasingly opting for abortions, so crisis pregnancies are different now in character to what they were 30 years ago -- then it was almost exclusively a problem for single women.

Anne says that this phenomenon of married women with crisis pregnancies would have been unheard of in the 1980s, a time when a series of hugely controversial referendums on the issue divided Irish society right down the middle.

So what's behind this sea-change? She believes the rising cost of having children and the fact more women are working are big factors.

"We have situations where a woman might already have one or two children in childcare and would not be able to afford any more," says Anne. "They might have been able to cope with the first child, but feel they have no option when they get pregnant again."

In some cases, the Life organisation has provided a 'crèche fund' to enable the woman to stay working and have the baby -- whether single, married or in a relationship.

Immigration is another factor. While Irish society might have moved on in relation to single mothers, many other societies have not, and for a lot of pregnant migrant women, the stigma in their home countries is every bit as strong as it was in Ireland decades ago.

"Migrant women or students -- who might be working up to 20 hours a week -- would not have the necessary PRSI built up and would not be entitled to benefits and it's a big concern for them if they want to continue with their pregnancy," says Anne.

"Some of them are very isolated and they can't keep working indefinitely. There's very little they can do," she says.

So what else has changed since she started at the counselling service?

"Everything has changed and nothing has changed," she says. "Society's attitudes have changed -- the stigma of having a baby outside marriage is gone; there are more supports and more agencies offering support.

"Women aren't always sure what they want and they want to explore their options and what their pregnancy will be like for them," says Kennedy, "and it's our job to take the time with them to find the best option."

Women seeking information about abortion and counselling is down in recent years -- which may be due to the lowering of the figures of Irish women having abortions in the UK who give an Irish address.

The organisation doesn't provide contact details for women seeking abortions, but the seven staff members and almost 50 volunteer counsellors do help them in every other way, including counselling after abortions.

"You have to see the human being at the centre of all this and try to help them. We don't believe abortion is in anyone's interest -- that's our belief," Anne says.

"But while we may not agree with their decision, that doesn't mean we won't try to help them after the fact."

Life as a Life volunteer can be stressful -- but equally there are times when the rewards are obvious.

Life provides accommodation in some cases for women going through a pregnancy and the follow-through with clients often goes on past the birth. As one volunteer put it: "We've had women who haven't even had a vest to put on the child when they were born -- let alone food or a pram or a cot. So we help them with all those things.

"In one case we had follow-up with a woman who came in to the office three years after her baby was born and we could see the child playing on the floor and how happy the woman was with her baby and those are the times when you realise it's all worth it.

"You look at the child playing and you think 'That's what we're all about.'"

She might have added: "That's Life".

Individuals and families with crisis pregnancies can contact Life at or 1850 281 281

Irish Independent

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